Opio Lumumba Sokoni is an activist lawyer trained at Howard University School of Law. He is the Drug Policy Alliance's campaign coordinator for Measure 62. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is a nationwide drug reform organization that believes the war on drugs has failed and it's time to start looking at alternatives. DPA believes drug policies should be less harmful than the drugs themselves, and wants to base drug policy on science, medicine, compassion, and human rights.

Sitting at a stop light on Florida Avenue recently, I observed a man and woman hanging out in a parking lot of a gas station. Nothing was too unusual except that it was just turning 5 o'clock in the morning and the store was closed. A cop car was parked nearby seeming to make the scene complete. Simple street sense told me that the people at the store used drugs and, no doubt, had been up all night. I also knew that if they were confronted by that police officer, they would probably be arrested and sent to jail for drugs. Assuming they were non-violent and with my current advocacy work in mind, I thought, "If they were to get in trouble, these two people would benefit from Measure 62."

Measure 62 is the "Treatment Instead of Jail for Certain Non-Violent Drug Offenders Initiative of 2002." This measure will be placed on the November ballot. If passed, Measure 62 will provide substance abuse treatment instead of prosecution or imprisonment to eligible, non-violent defendants charged with illegal possession or use of drugs. Because of a Congressional amendment, certain drugs are not included in the initiative, i.e. marijuana. However, the amendment will cover 70 percent of the people who we believe should benefit from a harm-reduction-based approach to the drug problem. Individuals who are convicted of low-level, non-violent drug crimes are placed on probation and given treatment. Measure 62 will cover services like vocational training, family counseling and anger management in addition to quality drug treatment. Under Measure 62, the person will receive 12 months of treatment with six months of after-care.

The treatment provided will be conveniently located in the community. This is good policy because people would be kept with their families, so children don't have to go into foster care as they would if their caretakers were imprisoned. In addition, providing local treatment instead of jailing is beneficial because it will not interrupt the employment of offenders who have jobs. At present, if my two friends at the gas station were to be arrested and sent to prison, they would end up in far away places like Ohio and Connecticut. In addition to treatment, under Measure 62, once a person has successfully completed treatment, they can request that their record be expunged.

The initiative approach is good because we are looking at enormous harms that cannot wait for politicians alone to address. The status quo is without the appropriate amount of treatment and rehabilitation mechanisms in place. Besides the human issues that were discussed, drug and alcohol abuse directly and indirectly costs the District about $1.2 billion a year. That's billion with a "B". As a result, active citizen participation has become necessary.

Now, enters Measure 62, which is a treatment-based trend that is starting to sweep the country. Voters have enacted similar "treatment instead of incarceration" initiatives in Arizona (Proposition 200 in 1996) and California (Proposition 36 in 2000) with overwhelming citizen support. The Hawaii legislature has enacted similar legislation this year. Additionally, voters in Michigan and Ohio will vote on "treatment instead of incarceration" initiatives in November with Florida to follow in 2004. Since passage, Proposition 36 has diverted more than 13,000 drug offenders into treatment. And, California's taxpayers are projected to save approximately $1.5 billion over the next five years. In addition, California has increased the number of licensed and certified substance abuse slots by 68%. Since enactment of Proposition 36, California's drug user, prison population has decreased by 20%. Arizona is having similar results.

The questions I ask myself are many. If passed, will Congress support the will of the people and appropriate the necessary funding for D.C. to implement Measure 62? Will the opponents of this trend be those who support the prison industrial complex? Will the opposition to this type of measure be businessmen whose bottom line is based on the number of people who go to prison and who go back to prison? Will the non-supporters of this bill be those who make a profit off of prison construction and prison labor? This, of course, will be something to watch as Measure 62 kicks into high gear in the Congress's backyard.

Measure 62, in essence, will have a positive impact on the District as a whole. This is about healing and finally employing alternative measures that have proven to work and not harm. No longer will we see the jailing of minorities in such high numbers while whites disproportionately receive treatment. This measure will guarantee treatment for all non-violent, low-level drug offenders who need it. If the results of Measure 62 are half as successful as what we are seeing in Arizona and California, the District stands to benefit greatly. More families will stay together, more children will be born healthy, more DC residents will become employable and more treatment slots will become available.

As the light turned green that morning, I took another glance at my two fellow DCites and thought, "If Measure 62 passes, the next time I see them at this hour they could be going to work."

Measure 62 is funded by the D.C. Campaign for Treatment. Mr. Sokoni can be contacted at [email protected].

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Other commentaries in this issue:

Zimbabwe's Mugabe and White Farmers: by Dr. A. Chika Onyeani, Guest Commentator

The Promise of Reparations

A letter to our readers: Fight on, Sister McKinney... Afghan dope on U.S. streets... Don't bet Black futures on the market... Rep. Clyburn bears witness to racist crime

Commentaries in Issue Number 9 - August 8, 2002

The State of Black American Politics: Dr. Martin Kilson's Report to the National Urban League

Dignity - Plus a Living Wage and Benefits: Home health care workers win victories - for themselves and civilization

A letter to our readers: Burger King digested... Ashcroft stalks librarians... Cory Booker roams wilderness

e-Mailbox: McKinney: A Hero in Need of Money... Rep. Hilliard Rebuked on Ivy League Warning... Forget About Randall Kennedy!

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety on the Past Issues page.