With Stroke of a Pen, Schwarzenegger Sentences More Drug Users to Die

by Charles Davis October 06, 2010




Outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is widely considered to be that rare thing these days: a moderate, socially liberal Republican. He even talks about climate change without using “scare quotes.”

But last week the governor showed himself to still be plenty reactionary, not only vetoing legislation that would have saved lives and stopped the spread of deadly diseases by legalizing the sale of pharmaceutical needles, but even standing up — in the face of unanimous opposition from the legislature — for the right of law enforcement to shackle pregnant women.

Schwarzenegger also vetoed another life-saving bill, AB 2460, that would have mitigated some of the drug war’s evil by granting witnesses to a drug overdose limited immunity from prosecution if they call for help or take the person to a hospital. “While I appreciate the author’s intent behind this bill,” explained a patronizing Schwarzenegger, “I am troubled that the bill essentially seeks to eliminate the penalty for an illegal act with an illegal substance.” There needs to be “[a]ccountability” and “legal consequences” for drug use, he added.

While he was at it, the governor could also have mentioned the need for drug users to continue suffering preventable deaths, as that’s what “accountability” will mean in the real world. But as Reason magazine’s Brian Doherty writes, that the only talk of eliminating punishments for drug use “comes only in the context of saving someone’s life” didn’t seem to matter to the governor, “though to their credit it did matter to California’s legislature.”

Nearly 3,500 people died from drug overdoses in California in 2006, and lord only knows how many of them may have survived — lived to perhaps one day change their lives — had those present at an overdose not been spooked by the prospect of prison time and scared to call for help, a sad fact that drew a coalition of public health experts and civil libertarians to support passage of AB 2460. Schwarzenegger with a mere signature could have saved lives. He chose not to. (Read more after the jump.)

Schwarzenegger also singlehandedly sentenced more intravenous drug users to contracting H.I.V. and Hepatitis, vetoing two measures that, respectively, would have allowed the state health department to distribute clean needles in particularly at-risk locations and would have legalized the sale of needles at pharmacies state-wide. He cited opposition from law enforcement and some local authorities.

The governor’s lack of empathy was also on display in his veto AB 1900, a bill that would have barred law enforcement from shackling pregnant women, a measure that was spurred by the story of Pauline Latu, a non-violent first-time offender who was shackled for seven months by officers with the Contra Costa County jail as she carried her child. The governor claimed the measure would have gone “beyond the scope” of the state Corrections Standards Authority’s mission.

“This veto is particularly mean spirited and only serves to support the stereotype that incarcerated women are dangerous and must be subdued at all times,” wrote Karen Shain of the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “I have to call Pauline and tell her we failed. How can I explain that California is just not ready to treat women like her humanely?”

The bill had been unanimously passed by the legislature.

The governor’s vetoes come despite his signing a bill that reduced the penalty for small-scale marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction, removing the threat of arrest. Though that long-overdue reform won him praise, Schwarzenegger’s other moves backing the worst aspects of the war on drugs and California’s prison system lend credence to the cynical take of those like former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who argues in the Huffington Post that the governor was simply trying to take the wind out of the sails of Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana and eliminate penalties for adult possession of less than an ounce altogether.

But when a politician who denies clean needles to addicts and defends shackling pregnant women to their hospital beds is still widely labelled a “moderate,” it’s hard not to be cynical.

Photo Credit: Nate Mandos

Charles Davis is a Change.org editor. He previously covered Congress and criminal justice issues for public radio and Inter Press Service. Follow him on Twitter @charlesdavis84.


2 thoughts on “With Stroke of a Pen, Schwarzenegger Sentences More Drug Users to Die

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