It's a little more than six months to the November elections, and most observers are focused on the battle between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic Party nomination, with Republican nominee-in-waiting Senator John McCain garnering less attention. But there is life beyond the two major political parties, and it is the third parties, especially the Greens and the Libertarians, and the independent Ralph Nader candidacy, where radical drug policy platforms are the norm -- not the exception.
A few major party primary candidates did advocate ending drug prohibition -- Democrat Mike Gravel, Republican Ron Paul, and to a lesser extent Democrat Dennis Kucinich. But even the highly energized Paul campaign did not approach the vote count of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination. To find anti-prohibitionist campaign platforms in the general election, then, one must turn to third parties. This week, Drug War Chronicle will look at the Libertarian Party. Next week, it will be the turn of the Greens and the Naderites.
The Libertarians have traditionally been anti-prohibitionist, and their current drug policy issue statement and drug policy platform this year are no exception. In the latter, the party lays out its basic principle on drug policy: "Individuals should have the right to use drugs, whether for medical or recreational purposes, without fear of legal reprisals, but must be held legally responsible for the consequences of their actions only if they violate others' rights." In the former, it says simply the correct policy is "end prohibition."
With the party convention set for May 22-26 in Denver, the 19-man field in pursuit of the party's presidential nomination includes at least one prominent medical marijuana activist and long-time Libertarian, Steve Kubby, along with two high-profile party newcomers who have become instant front-runners, former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr and former Democratic Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska. Gravel joined the party last week and simultaneously announced his campaign for the nomination.
As would be expected among prospective Libertarian nominees, all three leading candidates take a strong stand for individual liberty, although only Gravel and Kubby explicitly mention ending the drug war. "It is time to end the drug war," Gravel says on his issues page. "The war on drugs: end it," says Kubby on his.
"Senator Gravel is using the drug war as a centerpiece of his campaign," said Gravel campaign field organizer Jose Rodriguez. "He talks about it often."
Gravel's departure from the Democratic Party was a long time coming, said Rodriguez. "If you go back to his Senate days, he was always viewed as a maverick, and over the course of time, the Democrats have gone from being the party of labor and FDR to the party of Wall Street," he argued. "The senator has come to realize his values are much closer to those of the Libertarian Party than the Democratic Party."
Although in a former incarnation, Barr was a staunch foe of drug reform, even going so far as to author the Barr amendment to the annual Washington, DC, appropriations bill barring the District from counting the votes in a winning medical marijuana initiative, he was otherwise a civil libertarian with a strong interest in privacy rights. After losing his House seat (ironically at least in part because his opposition to medical marijuana led to his being targeted by then Libertarian national political director Ron Crickenberger), Barr has slowly drifted away from Republican orthodoxy, even going so far as to work as a lobbyist for the ACLU and the Marijuana Policy Project.
"Bob Barr lobbied for us on medical marijuana on the Hill last year, particularly on repealing his own amendment and Hinchey-Rohrabacher," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Prior to losing his seat in Georgia, he was a civil libertarian with some notable exceptions, the drug war being the major one, but that has changed. When people come over from the dark side, they should be welcomed," he added.
Californian Steve Kubby isn't about to stand aside for the newcomers. With a long history in the party and wide name recognition among drug reform activists, he is mounting a serious campaign for the nomination -- and he thinks he can win.
"There is an epic storm brewing in the party," he said. "We have Gravel, a liberal Democrat who just announced as a Libertarian, and we have Bob Barr, former CIA agent and federal prosecutor, former drug warrior leader, telling us he's undergone a conversion. The party has really rallied behind him," Kubby said.
But, Kubby argued, both Gravel and Barr have made a fatal error by embracing the "fair tax" proposal, which would replace income taxes with a national sales tax. "Both these guys have screwed up in a major way and demonstrated their newbie status by embracing the fair tax. For Libertarians, this is like violating the Holy Grail. We hate the fair tax."
By bringing sufficient delegates to Denver (all you have to do to be a delegate is join the party and show up, about 750 are expected to attend), Kubby said, he could win the nomination. "In addition to the folks who are already going, we're trying to line up 75 new people to register and show up as delegates. Ed Rosenthal and Jack Herer have already committed to be there for the duration," he announced.
"The convention will be the single greatest media opportunity for this movement for the entire year, and I think as a medical marijuana activist, I can send a very loud message," adding that the party's ballot access in all 50 states means the media will follow it.
A Kubby campaign would also invigorate the party's anti-drug war wing, he argued. While ending drug prohibition was a high-profile issue for the party during Crickenberger's tenure, it has since faded somewhat. "The Libertarian Party hasn't gotten much traction with the drug war issue," he said. "But if the party saw 75 new delegates at the convention, I think it would be happy to jump back on the bandwagon."
While the Libertarian contenders slug it out for the nomination next month, drug reformers are once again engaged in the perennial, quadrennial debate over purity versus pragmatism.
Long-time drug reformer Kevin Zeese has given up on the mainstream parties as vehicles for fundamental change. In 2004, Zeese served as a spokesman for the Nader presidential campaign, and in 2006 he ran for the US Senate in Maryland under both the Green and the Libertarian Party banners.
"It's pretty stupid to look to the Democrats when it comes to the drug war," said Zeese. "Once they're in office, that will be a low-priority issue, and they will be loathe to risk being seen as soft on crime. It's going to take a political revolution to end the drug war, and you don't start a revolution by supporting the status quo."
While Steve Kubby may be trying to achieve a knock-out blow against Barr and Gravel, said Zeese, he is probably not going to be able to stop the Barr juggernaut. That could lead to a Barr-Gravel ticket, Zeese said, licking his chops.
"A Barr-Gravel ticket would be very strong and likely to hurt both parties, especially libertarian-leaning Republicans and anti-war/anti-intervention Republicans," said Zeese. "And, if the Ron Paul money machine, or part of it, goes toward them they could be a significant force."
Likewise, said Zeese, a Barr-Gravel ticket could siphon off some disaffected Democratic voters, particularly those with strong anti-war leanings. "If Obama continues to move to the right on the war," he said, "they could pull votes from the Democrats, too, or some of those voters could go for Nader or Cynthia McKinney and the Greens."
Unless and until Democrats are willing to take concrete actions to end the drug war, drug reformers shouldn't vote for them, Zeese argued. "I don't know why drug reformers keep voting for people who want to throw them in jail," he said. "The movement is asleep. You don't show your power by compromising and voting for people against you, even if that means John McCain gets elected. If Democrats want our support, they need to support our issue."
Not so fast, retorted Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance. "When it comes to drug policy reform, there is a significant and growing difference between the candidates of the two major parties, between Clinton or Obama and McCain," he said. "There are real differences on a range of issues from incarceration to needle exchange to treatment and prevention, and it would be foolish to deny that."
Democrats now are better on drug reform than in the past, Nadelmann argued. "Look at Pelosi, Conyers, Kucinich, Bobby Scott, Waxman -- all of whom hold leadership positions -- and compare them with the Democrats of the late 1980s or 1990s, folks like Rostenkowski and O'Neill and Moynihan. We did the Shadow Convention at the Democratic convention in 2000 because we didn't see much distinction between the Democrats and the Republicans. We're not doing that this year in part because we do see real differences."
Still, even Nadelmann was willing to hold Democrats to the fire by voting third party -- as long as it didn't affect the ultimate outcome of the election. "If you're voting based on drug policy issues, my pragmatic advice would be to vote the Democrat in any swing state and vote for the third party candidate in any safe state," said Nadlemann. "That's how we can become most effective."
The Libertarians are fighting it out to see who will carry the party's banner in November. Now, drug reformers will once again have to fight it out over whether to support reformists or revolutionaries when it comes to our issue.
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