Dan Morain

George Soros ought to fix the drug initiative mess he made in 2000

George Soros in 2010
George Soros in 2010 The Associated Press

To no one’s surprise, Alisa Marie McFarlin failed to show up in Yolo County court last week.

McFarlin, 33, is a methamphetamine user who has a tattoo on her chest that reads “Johnny’s Girl” and often is homeless, wandering the streets of Sacramento and West Sacramento.

She has been passing through the courthouse doors since December 2012, when she was arrested at the Cache Creek casino for possession of meth. She was arrested in June 2013 in Davis for loitering and possessing drug paraphernalia, and again on the 4th of July, 2013, in West Sac for meth.

A note in her criminal case file reads: “Client screened and given opportunity to engage in treatment despite having several past treatment episodes in which client did not attend regularly and subsequently discharged due to continued use and instability.”

McFarlin is caught up in the non-system created by Proposition 36, an initiative approved 14 years ago. Under Proposition 36, drug users are arrested once, twice, three times and more. They spend little time in county jail and no time in state prison. Worse, they are not compelled to confront their addiction.

The initiative promised voters that drug users would be treated. Ask anyone involved – judges, probation officers and addicts – and you’ll hear that Proposition 36 is a lie.

“The idea of a Proposition 36 drug court is a fallacy,” Yolo Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg said.

In June, after McFarlin failed to show up for what passed as Proposition 36 treatment and tested dirty for meth and marijuana, Rosenberg ordered her arrested and jailed.

Authorities caught up with McFarlin last month, but she didn’t stay in jail long. Yolo County jailers freed her Sept. 28 because of overcrowding, and told her to return to court for a hearing on Tuesday. When her name was called in court, there was silence. Rosenberg issued a new warrant for her arrest. This time, he added the condition that she be held without bail – if she’s found.

Not to lay the sins of parents on their offspring, but Proposition 36 of 2000 and Proposition 47 on the Nov. 4 ballot share certain facial features. Proposition 47 would reduce penalties for drug possession and property crimes to misdemeanors, instead of allowing prosecutors the discretion they have now to charge them as misdemeanors or felonies.

Backers of Proposition 47 say it is far more tightly written than 36. But then as now, there’s a common sugar daddy, New York billionaire George Soros, probably the world’s richest advocate of drug legalization.

Soros’ Open Society Policy Center donated $1.2 million to the “Yes on 47” campaign. He gave $1 million to the Proposition 36 effort in 2000.

In 2000, the argument in the voter handbook in favor of Proposition 36 read: “California prisons are overcrowded. We don’t want violent criminals to be released early to make room for nonviolent drug users. We must keep violent criminals behind bars and try a different approach with nonviolent drug users.”

The argument for Propositon 47: “Stops wasting prison space on petty crimes and focuses law enforcement resources on violent and serious crime by changing low-level nonviolent crimes such as simple drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors.”

In 2000 and in 2014, the Legislative Analyst predicted hundreds of millions in savings. Back then, legislators were supposed to put the money back into treatment, but soon found better uses for the money. There’s a similar promise with 47.

The biggest problems with Propositions 36 and 47 is that they’re initiatives. Virtually all initiatives are flawed. But initiatives can be amended in significant ways only by new initiatives.

“I’ll be blunt. It is a failure,” Lee Seale, Sacramento County’s chief probation officer, said of Proposition 36.

Seale, Rosenberg and other experts point to programs that work, like actual drug courts. In drug courts, judges directly supervise defendants and require treatment, while probation officers closely monitor progress. If the addicts slip, judges can immediately send them to jail. Proposition 36 provides no treatment, no drug testing and no threat of jail.

Consultant Jim Gonzalez helped run the “Yes on 36” campaign: “It sure worked when it had funding,” he said. Any failures “are not the fault of the public policy. It is the fault of the Legislature for not making drug policy a priority.”

Gonzalez pointed to studies, rather dated, suggesting Proposition 36 is a success, and to the most famous person to benefit from it, actor Robert Downey Jr. Downey pleaded no contest to charges of possession of cocaine in 2001, and avoided prison, thanks to Proposition 36. He had plenty going for him and could pay for treatment.

Cynthia Jentes is far more typical of the people who pass through the Proposition 36 non-system. She smoked marijuana for the first time when she was 10, dropped out of Sacramento High School in the 9th grade and was using crack by 17.

By her 20s, she was in Nevada, plying the oldest trade at Mustang Ranch. She was arrested for the first time at 28 in Reno for passing bad checks to feed her addiction, made her way back to Sacramento, and kept using and getting busted.

Arrested again in February 2013, she was shuffled into the dysfunctional Proposition 36 system, kept using and was arrested again for meth in Oak Park in May 2013.

“Prop. 36 is something we do just, I hate to say it, but we do it to beat the system,” Jentes told me.

Her life didn’t start changing until an arrest in September 2013. Sacramento County Judge Laurel D. White, seeing repeated Proposition 36 failures, ordered her into a very different system, drug court.

Probation officers met her at the jail and delivered her to intensive treatment that lasted for 10 months. When we spoke the other day, she had been clean for a year. She was living in a duplex off Power Inn Road and going to school. Who knows what will happen to McFarlin?

“I hope they find her before she harms herself,” Rosenberg told me.

Soros, the true believer in drug legalization, donated $990,000 for the marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot in Oregon, and helped fund the initiative that legalized marijuana in Washington state two years ago. And there is the “Yes on 47” campaign.

Being a billionaire, Soros can afford not to care what other people think. But maybe instead of funding new initiatives to change the world in his image, he ought to spend some of his money to clean up the mess he made with Proposition 36.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.