Proposition 36: The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act

Treatment Works, Recovery Happens, and Proposition 36 Helps Make it Possible.

As the nation’s war on drugs intensified in the 1980s and ’90s, California followed national trends by relying increasingly on punishment and prisons as its primary response to arrests for illicit drug use. Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug possession offenders were arrested, convicted and imprisoned, disrupting families and dimming future employment prospects. The total number of people imprisoned in California for drug possession quadrupled between 1988 and 2000.

The turnaround in California’s drug policy came in the form of Proposition 36: The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act. The measure appeared on the ballot November 7, 2000, and proposed treating drug abuse primarily as a public health issue rather than as a criminal justice concern. The initiative mandated treatment instead of incarceration for most nonviolent drug possession offenders. Prop. 36 is a post-conviction program that offers treatment and probation, not incarceration. The program is available to most people convicted solely of possessing illicit drugs or paraphernalia. Prop. 36 is open to anyone convicted of a first or second offense. Eligible individuals have the right to refuse treatment, and courts may deny treatment in cases involving a history of violence or concurrent crimes other than drug possession.

Treatment can last up to 12 months, with up to six months of continuing care afterward. If a person fails to attend treatment or commits a new criminal offense (other than petty drug possession), Prop. 36 treatment and probation can be terminated.

Preliminary results already confirm that this universal offer of treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders is a highly effective and inexpensive way to deal with substance abuse, and has the added benefit of unclogging California’s overburdened criminal justice system.

Proposition 36 went into effect on July 1, 2001, with initial funding for five years.

The problem, before Prop. 36, was that too many people in California did not even have the option of treatment before they faced jail or prison sentences for simple drug possession.

More than 60 percent of voters approved Prop. 36. Today, Prop 36 stands out as the most significant piece of sentencing reform since the repeal of Alcohol Prohibition. In its first four years, from mid-2001 to mid-2005, Prop. 36 clearly delivered on its promises and proved itself as sound public policy:
  • During the first four years, more than 140,000 people entered treatment. Over half were accessing treatment for the first time.
  • The number of people incarcerated in state prisons for drug possession fell by 32 percent.
  • Prop. 36 rendered the construction of a new men’s prison unnecessary, saving taxpayers at least half a billion dollars.
  • Prop. 36 resulted in the shuttering of a women’s state prison.
  • Sixty percent fewer drug law offenders were sent to jail or prison in the first year alone.

California is already saving vast sums of money because of Prop. 36. Each year, 36,000 people enter Prop. 36 treatment, with the cost of treatment about $3,300 per person per year. Compare this to the cost of a year in prison being about $34,150 per person, the potential for savings to the taxpayer becomes abundantly clear.

Prop. 36 prioritizes quality, licensed treatment and makes compassion a cornerstone of the state’s rehabilitative approach. Consistent with its purpose of treating addiction primarily as a matter of public health rather than a criminal justice issue, Prop. 36 does not permit the court to incarcerate, even for short periods of time, individuals who suffer a first or second relapse during treatment. Drug use relapse is a natural and expected part of drug addiction treatment and recovery.

This prohibition of jail sanctions as a penalty for relapse is supported by the California Society of Addiction Medicine, the leading professional society for the field of addiction treatment in California. Addiction professionals recognize - and a growing body of research shows - that jail sanctions are costly, ineffective and often counter-productive to achieving better treatment outcomes.

The law says that the focus must be on achieving the goals of recovery, not punishing missteps along the path. Prop. 36’s emphasis on treatment is evident:

  • More than 700 new drug treatment programs have been licensed in California, and existing programs increased their capacity to treat thousands more clients.
  • Extraordinary new collaborative relationships emerged in California counties among treatment professionals, criminal justice agencies and the courts. Treatment providers have earned new responsibilities and greater respect as the benefits of treatment have become more apparent.
  • Prop. 36 included provisions for funding a full range of treatment options and services, coupled with family counseling, job training and other educational support. This broad view of treatment reflects the public’s sense that drug abuse is often a symptom of underlying problems that must be addressed to achieve lasting success.

Prop. 36’s most significant impact is with the estimated 60,000 Californians who will have completed their treatment programs in the first five years. The success of each graduate is shared with the people and the state of California. An even greater number spent significant time in treatment, making tangible progress toward recovery. Without Prop. 36 treatment, many would never have had the opportunity to achieve recovery and a new life.

Prop. 36 has delivered on its promises, but there is still progress to be made.

  • Counties could increase participation and retention in Prop. 36 programs by locating treatment assessment, referrals and enrollment near court and probation services and, provide transportation for clients between the courts, probation and treatment centers.
  • Counties and courts must do more to expand the availability and proper use of methadone-assisted treatment, expressly authorized by Prop. 36 for treating addiction to heroin or other opioids, as well as effective new treatment options such as buprenorphine.
  • A new statewide rule restricting counties’ non-treatment costs to no more than 20 percent of Prop. 36 allocations would help guarantee that more funds go to treatment.

California voters who approved Prop. 36 have every reason to be satisfied, whether they saw in the ballot initiative a chance for fiscal savings, a change in drug policy, or the opportunity for a friend or family member to find hope in recovery. Though this bold experiment is still relatively new, its real world impact becomes more apparent by the day: one person, one family, one day at a time.

Recommended Viewing

A New Way of Life

This 13-minute video details the rights and responsibilities afforded to eligible, nonviolent drug offenders under Prop. 36. The video also highlights the social and economic successes resulting from offenders receiving drug treatment instead of incarceration. For information on obtaining the video, contact Drug Policy Alliance’s Sacramento Office at (916) 444-3751, or

Recommended Websites

The Drug Policy Alliance’s California Capital Office website on Proposition 36 features background information, news, reports, fact sheets and links to other Prop. 36 resources.

This California Alcohol and Drugs Program website provides background and resources for individuals and counties concerning Prop. 36.

This website by the California Society of Addiction Medicine frequently features articles relating to Prop. 36.

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