SJC Allows Ballot Item on Drug Funds

Boston Globe, 3 Oct. 2000

A ballot initiative petition that would use money seized from drug dealers to fund treatment programs rather than drug-related investigations will go before voters next month, the state's highest court ruled yesterday.

The state's 11 district attorneys had sought to block the petition from the November ballot, saying it would protect drug dealers from punishment and deprive law enforcement of money needed to prosecute drug offenses.

"No one, least of all the DAs, is opposed to drug treatment for nonviolent drug users," said Suffolk District Attorney Ralph C. Martin II. But the petition, if approved, would "create loopholes for drug dealers and drug traffickers, so that by declaring that they are at risk of becoming drug dependent, they would be able to avoid conviction," Martin said.

Under current state law, money and property seized from drug dealers can be used to fund a variety of law enforcement efforts, including witness-protection programs and DNA testing.

The exact amount of money and property forfeited annually is in dispute, but prosecutors estimate the total at $1 million to $2 million, while backers of the ballot initiative say it could be more than $3 million.

The spokesman for Yes on 8: The Coalition for Fair Treatment, which is backing the proposed law, said he was "delighted" by the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling and accused the district attorneys of "frivolous" attempts to keep the petition off the ballot.

"We've been saying all along that their position lacked legal weight," said Al Gordon, the spokesman, "and the court agreed with us."

Besides diverting drug forfeiture money into a "drug treatment trust fund," the measure would allow judges to sentence first- and second-time drug offenders to treatment programs rather than prison if the offenders can show they are drug-addicted or at risk of becoming addicted.

It would also raise the standards under which police can seize money and property in drug arrests.

"We feel that this question clears the way for a full-fledged debate on Massachusetts drug policy," Gordon said. "Voters can now decide between the failed policies of the past and a new, balanced and smart approach."

In light of their failed effort to keep the petition off the ballot, opponents of the proposed law will advance to "plan B," which means using the coming month to "communicate as much as possible and as directly as possible to the voters why this is a bad law," Martin said.

"We don't have the money that the sponsors of this ballot initiative have," Martin added, an apparent reference to backing the petition has received from three wealthy out-of-state residents, including billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

"But we have some credibility, and we're going to put it on the line," he said.

By Sacha Pfeiffer

© 2000, Boston Globe