Drug war faces fierce opposition

DETROIT – For years they’ve warned of school-yard pushers, of liquor stores that don’t check IDs, of new drugs popping up in teenage bloodstreams.

Now there’s a new enemy in Michigan for substance-abuse educators like the Troy Community Coalition and the Macomb County Prevention Coalition – an enemy bigger and better financed than just about anything.

It’s a California foundation that has won major fights to ease drug laws in California and Arizona. Financed by billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis, and by multimillionaire John Sperling, the Campaign for New Drug Policies began an effort last month to do the same thing in Michigan.

The trio hopes to duplicate in Michigan, Ohio and Florida their recent successes in the West, using the mantra “treatment, not jail” for first- and second-time drug users.

That news has Michigan’s drug-prevention leaders girding for a fight in 2002. The battle is expected be fought with petitions, speeches and public-service spots leading to the ballot box in November.

Central to the fight will be community coalitions, the mostly volunteer anti-drug groups in scores of Michigan cities, including nearly two dozen in Oakland County.

On Dec. 14, President George W. Bush cheered coalition leaders from across the country at their national convention in Washington.

Then he signed a bill giving them five more years of federal funding – $450 million through fiscal-year 2007, hundreds of millions more than ever.

And Bush pointed to Michigan, singling out the Troy Community Coalition for its success in changing attitudes toward drugs and in helping start other coalitions across the state and the country.

The Troy coalition’s leader, also head of a regional group of 13 coalitions, is Mary Ann Solberg, nominated by Bush last year to be his deputy White House drug czar.

Awaiting Senate confirmation and choosing her words carefully, Solberg said last week she couldn’t comment on how Michigan’s coalitions will fight the politicking of the Santa Monica-based Campaign for New Drug Policies.

But Solberg said she is determined to see more coalitions spawned and strengthened. And if confirmed, she is expected to help them play a key role in opposing any easing of drug laws. Behind the scenes, Solberg is “spearheading the campaign against this initiative,” said Diane Dovico, a part-time community organizer for the Royal Oak Community Coalition.

“We’re all looking to educate people. We’d like to squelch this before people vote on it,” Dovico said.

Solberg’s swan song before moving to Washington might be Jan. 26, when coalition members from across Oakland County are to gather at a Troy church for a Saturday morning meeting on ways to find and keep volunteers, change community attitudes and market the coalition movement.

The new petition drive seeks to amend the Michigan Constitution by scaling back mandatory drug-crime sentences and giving judges more discretion in sentencing drug offenders. It is expected to make the ballot with 302,711 signatures.

Last year, leaders of metro Detroit coalitions fought another statewide campaign over drug laws.

Prompted by petition circulators seeking to ease Michigan’s marijuana laws, coalition heads began approaching city and county officials with resolutions condemning marijuana.

They got hearty support at council meetings in Detroit, Allen Park, Clawsonand Troy. And they won approval from commissioners in Oakland and Macomb counties.

But at city halls in Berkley and Huntington Woods, elected leaders balked.

That prompted coalition leaders in Oakland and Macomb to call a halt to further canvassing.

In Huntington Woods, city commissioners met the delegation with silence.

Later, Mayor Ron Gillham said drug debates are best left to voters.

Michiganders are far from uniform in their views on drugs, said Lansing pollster Ed Sarpolus, vice president of EPIC/MRA consultants. In a 1999 statewide poll, about 55 percent of state residents supported legalization of marijuana for medicinal use if prescribed by a doctor, Sarpolus said.

Yet Michiganders in other polls overwhelmingly rejected suggestions to legalize drugs across the board, Sarpolus said.

Many voters seek a middle ground between jail and legalization, said Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the California foundation that has launched the Michigan campaign. He cites a nationwide poll last year by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, in which Americans by a 52-35-percent majority said drug use should be treated as a disease, not a crime.

Michigan’s drug czar is unreceptive to that softer line.

On Jan. 10, Craig Yaldoo is to deliver a battle cry in the state’s war on drugs to members of the Macomb County Prevention Coalition.

Yaldoo will rev their enthusiasm for the electoral fight ahead at a meeting open to the public, at 2 p.m. in the Freedom Hill conference center, 15000 Metropolitan Parkway in Sterling Heights. He will call the foundation’s plan “the moral equivalent of giving our children rat poison.”

Crucial to stopping the initiative will be the pavement-pounding and door-knocking of people in community coalitions, Yaldoo said.

“They’ve always brought in teachers and parents and volunteers of all kinds, anyone who yearned for a way to get involved” in fighting drugs, he said.

For more on the Campaign for New Drug Policies, visit www.drugreform.org