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U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing Attacks Drug Initiatives Passed in California and Arizona


January 1997

On December 2, 1996, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), held a hearing to respond to Proposition 200 in Arizona and Proposition 215 in California, enacted November 5, 1996, which decriminalize drug use in some circumstances (Associated Press, "Senate Tackles State Propositions Allowing Use of Illegal Drugs," New York Times, December 3, 1996, p. A13; Glen Martin, "Prop. 215 Attacked in U.S. Senate," San Francisco Chronicle, December 3, 1996, p. A1; for background, see "Drug Czar Says 'No' to California's Medical Marijuana Initiative, Polls Show Support for the Proposition," NewsBriefs, October 1996; "Arizonans to Vote on Drug Decriminalization and Control Measure," NewsBriefs, October 1996).

Hatch said the propositions passed because philanthropists "pumped millions of dollars in out-of-state soft money into stealth campaigns designed to conceal their real objective -- the legalization of drugs." Saying that he too was compassionate, Hatch said it was a mistake "to abandon our principles, the law, and modern science in the name of compassion." Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said he was "extraordinarily embarrassed" by the passage of Proposition 200, adding that Arizona voters who passed the measure 65% to 35%, "were deceived, and deliberately so, by sponsors of this proposition."

General Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, testified that the new laws were a "direct threat to national drug control strategy." He alleged that the new laws make drug abuse more likely, undermine safe medical procedures, and send the "wrong message" to our children. McCaffrey claimed that there is no clinical evidence to support marijuana as medicine, smoked marijuana is harmful, alternative therapies exist, and marijuana is a "gateway" to subsequent drug abuse. Proposition 215 does not properly define the terms "doctor," "caregiver" and "any other serious illness," allowing a broad use of the law for a criminal defense, according to McCaffrey.

DEA Administrator Tom Constantine testified that the DEA will continue to investigate major drug crimes. Senator Kyl asked for more DEA resources in Arizona until the law is "fixed," and asked if local law enforcement could assist in enforcing federal law by having local police officers deputized by Federal law enforcement agencies or by using "task forces." Constantine said federal officials would not be able to absorb increased numbers of drug cases and they should be handled at the state level.

John Walters, an official of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Bush Administration, suggested revoking doctors' licenses or prosecuting physicians who recommend or prescribe a controlled substance. He also criticized the Clinton administration for not having a "credible strategy" or providing leadership on the issue.

Richard Romley, Maricopa County District Attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, said the propositions send a mixed message to foreign countries who are cooperating with the U.S. in its anti-drug efforts, and that the laws will confuse businesses that are trying to abide by fderal regulations to keep a drug-free workplace. He suggested that legal challenges to the state laws should be made.

The only witness testifying in support of the new laws was attorney Marvin Cohen, Treasurer for Arizonans for Drug Policy Reform. Cohen testified that current drug policy was not working and that Proposition 200 changed the "drug war" emphasis from incarceration to treatment and education. He said Arizona voters were not "duped into voting for something that they didn't understand." According to Cohen, polls taken in 1995 and 1996 (before TV ads favoring the proposition were broadcast) indicated voters supported the provisions of Proposition 200 and that most believe drug abuse is a medical issue, not a legal issue. Cohen cited a 1994 Rand Corporation study that found treatment is seven times more effective than law enforcement and ten times more effective than interdiction in reducing cocaine use. Proposition 200 was endorsed by 1964 presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), former U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), and Nobel-Prize winning economist Milton Friedman.