Truth and Consequences

Are Proposition 301's backers selling a bill of goods?

"No one," wrote Arthur Miller, "wants the truth if it's inconvenient." Indeed, when it comes to Proposition 301, plumbing the truth is like plucking pigs from a mud hole.

In other words, it ain't easy.

This get-tough measure would deny meth offenders the ability to go through Arizona's drug-court program, which offers treatment rather than prison. The premise is that meth heads need a bigger stick than other addicts if they are to come clean.

But to get the measure passed, Proposition 301's backers are promulgating a little fib. And it goes like this: Current laws don't let judges deposit today's treatment slackers in the pokey.

That isn't true. Still, it is what voters can read on the Arizona Secretary of State's Web site, and in a soon-to-be-mailed educational packet.

Confusing? You bet. But according to critics, that's just the way proposition backers want it.

Caroline Isaacs is an activist with Meth Free Arizona--"No" on 301. She says the misleading language was fashioned by lawmakers and the Arizona Legislative Council, a group which researches, drafts and interprets statutes.

"Their spin is that this thing is simply a tool to force people to stay in treatment," she says, "which is completely contradictory to the bill's actual language."

So misguided is the wording that Isaacs' group took the state to court, in an unsuccessful bid to have it changed.

Either way, she calls Proposition 301 a disaster in the making. "Everybody is rightfully concerned about the extent of meth use in our community. But Proposition 301 would take us in exactly the wrong direction, in terms of dealing with our meth problem. To say the solution is to not provide treatment to people is absolutely backwards."

According to Terence Hance, however, prodding meth offenders into treatment requires more legal ammo. He's the Coconino County Attorney and chairman of the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys' Advisory Council, which is thick with Proposition 301. "At the heart of this is a recognition that treatment for methamphetamine (addiction) is different than treatment for other drugs," he says. Prosecutors were "concerned about giving the courts the opportunity to do something motivational, to get people to do counseling and rehab around meth."

Under current law, he says, "We have found that we lack that tool."

Hance's point is echoed by Kenneth Behringer, general counsel for the Legislative Council. He says judges tend to interpret the 1996 law as meaning that drug addicts who blow their special, treatment-oriented probation can't be sent to jail. This interpretation, he adds, was cemented by a 1999 Arizona Supreme Court case "in which it was decided whether jail time could be imposed at the time of probation. And the court said no."

But UA Law Professor Jack Chin calls that ancient history. "Lo and behold, at one time, that was the law," he says. "But we've had intervening legal action since then." Today, Chin says, judges can indeed put drug offenders behind bars if they don't follow rules first established back in the 1990s. "So Proposition 301 is trying to fix a law that's already been fixed."

Barbara Sattler agrees. And as presiding judge for Pima County's Superior Court Drug Court Program, she should know. In an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly, Judge Sattler writes that "there is a lot of misconception concerning Proposition 301 ..."

Under current law, she writes, "It is true that first- and second-time offenders who possess small amounts of drugs (be it meth, cocaine, heroin, etc.) cannot be initially sent to prison or jail. However, if they violate treatment orders or get arrested for other felonies or drug offenses, they can be sent to jail or prison. Second-time offenders can get jail time up front as a condition of probation (although again they can not go to prison up front).

"Violating a treatment order means failing to drug test, testing positive for drugs or failing to attend treatment, whether that is going to counseling or failing to live in a halfway house catering to drug offenders," Judge Sattler writes. "You can also go to jail or prison if you reject probation or refuse drug treatment."

Nonetheless, language in the voter education pamphlet and on the Secretary of State's Web site still reads that "a person who is convicted for the first or second time of personal possession or use of a controlled substance, including methamphetamine, is eligible for probation and cannot be sentenced to a term in jail or prison."

So what's up with that? To find out, we contacted the Secretary of State's office. But staffers there were apparently laying low; several calls to office spokesman Kevin Tyne were not returned, nor was a call to Elections Director Joseph Kanefield.

Fortunately, we were finally able to reach Secretary of State Jan Brewer herself, who confirmed that the contested wording would not be changed. "The court upheld the language that (the Legislative Council) wrote," Brewer says.

Unfortunately, that's not true, either. In fact, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Colin Campbell didn't even get around to ruling on whether the Proposition 301 language was misleading, biased or outright bull. Instead, on Sept. 8, he simply decided that opponents had waited too long to make their case. "The court has no intention of throwing away the pamphlets already printed,'' Campbell said.

And so Arizona voters can expect to receive misinformation by mail, and on the Web.

But if Proposition 301 passes, they can expect a lot worse, writes Judge Sattler: "Incarcerating people keeps them off the streets, but when they come out, if they have not had treatment, they will begin using again. If this prop is passed, it will cost the taxpayers lots of money and clog prison with nonviolent addicts. While there is some drug treatment, in jail or prison, it is minimal and available only to a small percentage of prisoners.

"I think the bill is very short-sighted in targeting meth only," she continues. "While meth is certainly a horrible, highly addictive drug, addicts can be treated. Drug courts and other programs have had success. In the past, other drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine were the 'meth' of their time. The solution is not to target one drug. In a few years, there will be a new drug that takes the place of meth."

Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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