Prop. 36 Would Devastate the Drug Court System

Actor Martin Sheen is honorary chair of Californians United Against Drug Abuse, the committee opposing Proposition 36

My heart breaks for people addicted to drugs and for their families. Clearly, we need to do everything possible to help drug abusers recover from their addictions and get on with their lives. But Proposition 36 isn’t the answer. Decriminalizing dangerous and addictive drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, PCP and methamphetamine won’t help drug abusers. Nor will we help drug abusers by removing the two essential incentives for successful drug treatment: consequences and accountability. Yet this is what Proposition 36, which is on the November ballot, proposes.

Without accountability and consequences, drug abusers have little incentive to change their behavior or take treatment seriously. To succeed, they must assume the responsibility for their own success. No matter how much love and support they receive from family and friends, they have to understand that ultimately they’re the only ones who can make it happen.

Proposition 36 ignores this need for accountability by prohibiting any of the $120 million a year it appropriates from being used for drug testing--the key to effective treatment. Regular testing for drug use is what holds drug abusers accountable. Without it, there is no way to tell if the abusers have actually stopped using drugs.


Likewise, without consequences for failing a drug test, there’s no incentive to pass. According to judges, prosecutors and probation officers who have reviewed Proposition 36, the initiative makes it nearly impossible for judges to impose any meaningful sanctions in cases where the abusers fail or refuse to take treatment seriously.

Proponents of Proposition 36 claim a similar initiative is working in Arizona. Yet Arizona’s Maricopa County Dist. Atty. Richard Romley says the initiative has created a “nightmare” by preventing judges from sending drug offenders to jail if they fall to complete drug treatment. “Because drug offenders now realize there are no consequences for failing or refusing treatment, many are thumbing their noses at the court and continuing to abuse drugs,” Romley says.

While claiming to be a treatment initiative, Proposition 36 fails to specify the standards of what constitutes a legitimate treatment program. This opens the door to ineffective programs run by unqualified operators.

The real damage done by Proposition 36 is the devastating impact it will have on California’s increasingly popular drug courts, which are helping thousands of drug abusers break their addictions.

Drug courts provide precisely what Proposition 36 fails to deliver: court-supervised treatment with regular drug testing and consequences that hold participants accountable if they fail to take treatment seriously. Drug courts have a remarkable 65% to 85% success rate, whereas the success rate for the treatment programs proposed by Proposition 36, in which testing and consequences are lacking, are typically less than half that.

Drug courts work because they bring a team approach to the problem of drug addiction. Judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, substance abuse treatment specialists, probation officers, vocational experts and others work together to help offenders deal successfully with substance abuse problems.


California’s drug courts place drug offenders in appropriate treatment programs tailored to their individual needs without compromising public safety.

If offenders are a public safety risk, judges have the authority to incarcerate them. If they fail treatment, judges have the option of sending them to jail.

For every dollar invested in the system, drug courts save taxpayers an estimated $10 because of reduced jail and prison time, less criminal activity and lower criminal justice costs.

We should be expanding drug courts, not putting them out of business. Approving a measure that would increase the number of drug courts operating in California would produce a far greater return for taxpayers, drug abusers and their families.

This isn’t a debate over whether drug abusers should be given jail or treatment. It’s a choice between treatment that works and treatment that doesn’t.