Tokin' Resistance

Proposition 200 -- the Drug Medicalization Act -- is causing high anxiety among politicians and lawmen

And, as Proposition 200 supporters point out, expensive. A Rand Corporation study in 1994 found that reducing cocaine use by 1 percent through enforcement and punishment is seven times more expensive than treatment.

The cost of locking up a person in Arizona runs about $17,000 annually, and constructing even minimum-security lockups costs about $35,000 per prisoner, according to Department of Corrections figures. Proposition 200's backers estimate treatment will cost $2,000 to $4,000 annually, based on figures from the Maricopa County Department of Adult Probation, which already runs a small pilot treatment program.

While a majority of Arizonans may have come to view the war on drugs as unwinnable, it is also indisputable that the campaign Sam Vagenas chaired was among the more cleverly orchestrated and well-financed ever to make its way onto the ballot in Arizona.

The fact that more than half of the $1.5 million dumped into the Proposition 200 campaign came from outside the state has raised some hackles.

Tim Lawless, who chairs the Committee for a Drug-Free Arizona, which opposed Proposition 200, says, "If out-of-state money can hire the consulting firms, hire the petition gatherers and pay for the ads that made this thing pass . . . it's a serious cause for concern, wouldn't you say?"

Just as the national movement to relax marijuana law has brought together such diverse personalities as conservative luminary William F. Buckley, actor Woody Harrelson and New York Governor George Patacki, Proposition 200 lured perhaps one of the more diverse coalitions in Arizona's recent political memory. A list of its backers reads like a who's who of Arizona politics and business:

Secretary of the Interior and former governor Bruce Babbitt; John Norton, former U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture under Reagan; the lion of conservatism, former Republican senator Barry Goldwater; former Democratic senator Dennis DeConcini; and Dr. John Sperling, millionaire founder of the University of Phoenix, who kicked at least $460,000 of his own money into the campaign.

But the name that has drawn perhaps the most attention is not an Arizonan's at all. It is billionaire New York investor and philanthropist George Soros, who contributed $430,000 of his own money to the campaign. Another $300,000 came from the New York-based Drug Policy Foundation, of which Soros is one of the main patrons.

Soros, 65, made his name--and his money--as the manager of the Quantum Fund, one of the most high-yielding offshore mutual funds ever established.

Born in Hungary, Soros, who is Jewish, managed to evade the Nazis and emigrate to London at the age of 17 shortly after the end of World War II. He attended the London School of Economics.

According to his 1995 autobiography, Soros on Soros: Staying Ahead of the Curve, the financier became interested in philanthropic causes in the late 1970s, when his personal wealth had reached $25 million.

Much of his bankroll has been spent furthering what he refers to as "open societies." He writes in his book that growing up under Nazi tyranny made him keenly aware of the opportunities presented by less-restrictive societies, like Great Britain's. Throughout the 1980s, Soros spent millions trying to bring about open societies through education. He established scholarships for blacks living under apartheid in South Africa, and for dissidents from eastern Europe. With the collapse of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall, though, Soros turned his attention to the West. One of his pet causes has become America's war on drugs.

Soros, who declined to comment for this story, writes that "the drug problem as primarily a criminal problem is a misconception" and that "eradicating the drug problem is a false idea."

"A drug-free America is simply not possible. You can discourage the use of drugs, you can forbid the use of drugs, you can treat people who are addicted to drugs, but you cannot eradicate drugs."

So what would he do?
"I would establish a strictly controlled distribution network through which I would make most drugs, excluding the most dangerous ones like crack, legally available," he writes. "Initially, I would keep the prices low enough to destroy the drug trade. Once that objective was obtained, I would keep raising the prices, very much like an excise duty on cigarettes, but I would make an exception for registered addicts in order to discourage crime."

Such words rankle those who fought Proposition 200.
"This is a man who is advocating the outright legalization of drugs," Lawless says. "It's all right there on page 200 of his book. And then the people on the other side turn around and say, 'We're not trying to legalize drugs.' Isn't that a little disingenuous?"

Marvin Cohen, who served as Arizonans for Drug Reform's treasurer and legal counsel, says Lawless misses the mark.

"I don't really care what George Soros was talking about in his book," he says. "This is an Arizona initiative, and the people who lined up to support it were Arizonans. And the fact is, Proposition 200 is not about legalization. Possessing drugs for nonmedical reasons will still be a felony in Arizona, and that's serious stuff."

Cohen adds that criticizing the initiative because it took money from out of state is "like criticizing the U.S. because it took money from France during the Revolutionary War."

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