Reformers' Dilemma: Frick, Frack, or a Prophet from the Wilderness? 11/3/00

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With the elections just around the corner, drug policy reformers once again face the same dilemma that has confronted insurgent popular reform movements in the past. Do reformers maintain fealty to one of the unresponsive major parties, or do they strike out on their own with minor party candidates who support their issues?

In this election, the answers to these questions may make the difference between a victory for George W. Bush and one for Al Gore. The presidential race is in a dead heat, and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, with a strong drug reform platform, is threatening to take enough votes away from Gore in critical states to give Bush the election. Libertarian candidate Harry Browne, running on a platform that includes both full drug legalization and elimination of the income tax, could siphon votes from Bush.

But if an admittedly unscientific sampling of opinion from some leading reformers is any indication, many could care less about the fate of Al Gore and the Democrats. Nor is there any groundswell of support for his Republican challenger. Instead, there is an overriding -- if not unanimous -- sense of frustration and anger with both parties, and in some cases a determination to make them pay at the polls.

Whether the people whose opinions are expressed below are representative of either the drug reform movement's leadership or its mass base is an open question. But if they are, it would appear to be bad news for both major parties.

Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, evinces a popular frustration with the two-party monopoly. "Its ironic that Eskimos have 16 words to describe snow, while we have only two words -- Democrat and Republican -- to describe politics in this country."

Scott Ehlers of the Campaign for New Drug Policies, which is sponsoring California's Proposition 36, is a refugee from the two-party system. "I'm voting third party. I'm sick and tired of both Republicans and Democrats."

The Marijuana Policy Project's (MPP) Chuck Thomas agrees, although he reserves special scorn for the Democrats. "The problem is that people like Gore and hypocritical former pot-smoking Democrats have nothing to fear from people who use drugs or consider drug reform to be an essential issue," said Thomas.

"The Democrats can kick drug users and reformers around because they know these people can't go to the Republicans for help. As a result, the GOP attacks Democrats as soft on drugs and the Democrats respond by trying to be as tough. And the next election, it happens again, only now we've ratcheted up the punishments yet another notch."

Tree agrees that portions of the Democratic Party have been unresponsive. "The Democratic Leadership Committee and that wing of the party have given progressives the back of their hand."

Still, says Tree, "there are two parties within the party, and the only congresspersons who have spoken out for drug reform, such as John Conyers, Barney Frank, and Maxine Waters, are to be found within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party."

Those three certainly don't advocate third party or single-issue voting, especially with the presidential election too close to call at week's end. In fact, they are, as is to be expected, working hard to ensure a Gore victory.

Conyers, who is in line to head the House Judiciary Committee if the Democrats retake the House and who will sponsor an Omnibus Drug Reform Act in the next session, has recently urged voters to stay loyal and criticized Ralph Nader's civil rights record.

Presenting the prestigious Letelier-Moffitt human rights award to the November Coalition last month, Conyers expressed confidence that Democrats would win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and that he would be the next Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, an historic opportunity to reform drug policy and criminal justice. Conyers asked the audience if they would rather see him working with President Al Gore or President George Bush.

Barney Frank has been an especially vocal critic of third party defectors, and by extension, drug reformers advocating a third party vote. In a recent piece in Tikkun magazine responding to editor Michael Lerner's essay, "Don't Vote Lesser Evil Politics," Frank accused progressives who threaten to bolt to Ralph Nader or (less likely) Harry Browne of exercising a "right to ignore the consequences of your own actions."

"What if the 'other candidate' will oppress minorities, or worsen the situation in life of the most vulnerable, whereas the 'lesser evil' candidate would try to help these two groups, albeit less completely than you prefer?" asked Frank.

The Massachusetts Congressman hammered at the differences between Republicans and Democrats, pointing to Gore endorsements by organized labor, women's and abortion rights groups, gun control advocates, and gay and lesbian groups as indications that these liberal progressives understand "it is not the case that Gore is the lesser evil."

But Frank didn't mention drug policy.

One topic Frank did mention was Supreme Court appointments, which he argued were a critical reason to stay within the Democratic fold.

Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation generally agreed, but pointed out that, on drug policy, those differences are not as clear-cut as on other issues.

"The difference between Gore and Bush regarding Supreme Court appointments is as important as any difference between them," he told DRCNet. "This issue is a good argument for voting for Gore, particularly in swing states."

"On drug policy, and in terms of everyday civil liberties issues, a Gore justice would more likely be sympathetic," Sterling said, "but an extreme Bush appointee might buy the argument that drug laws are unconstitutional by exceeding the scope of the interstate commerce clause, much as the court did in the gun-free school case."

Others, while not advocating a Bush vote, pointed to pro-drug reform Republican politicians such as New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and California senate hopeful Tom Campbell (see "Races of Note," above) as signals that the Democrats are no longer the default option for two-party drug law reformers.

Both Johnson and Campbell have endorsed Bush despite their huge differences on drug policy. In a September interview with DRCNet (, Johnson explained his position: "Believing that either Bush or Gore will win, I have to ask myself where do I have the most impact on this issue? I can have more of an impact working with Gov. Bush; after all, outside of drug policy we are pretty much in line. Do I not advance the issue further given that I would get a sympathetic ear at a Bush White House?"

The CNDP's Ehlers also looks to the Republicans, although more out of political calculus than sympathy. "The drug war will be ended by a Republican, not a Democrat," said Ehlers. "It's like Nixon in China -- they're the hardliners and only the Republicans, as the tough-on-crime party can end this without appearing 'soft.'"

Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne could do to Bush what Nader is doing to Gore, albeit to a much smaller degree. According to most polls, Browne is hovering at the party's traditional 1%, enough to make a difference in only the squeakiest of races.

Troy Dayton is campaign manager for Rob Kampia and Matt Mercurio's anti-drug war insurgency in Washington, DC. Kampia and Mercurio are running on the Libertarian Party ticket for DC delegate to Congress and at large city council member, respectively, on a "Stop the Drug War" platform. Dayton is planning to vote for Harry Browne.

If there were no Libertarian candidate, Dayton told DRCNet, "I would either not vote or vote for Bush. Bush and Gore are equally bad on drug policy, but at least Bush is not for growing the government."

And, said Dayton, Browne is a better choice for drug reformers than Ralph Nader.

"Neither Nader nor Browne will win," Dayton argued, "so the question becomes what message is your vote going to send? Nader almost never talks about the drug issue, and a vote for him will be interpreted as a vote for the environment or universal health care or against corporate power -- not a vote for drug reform."

"Browne mentions the drug war in every single interview -- every Libertarian does -- and has spent over $200,000 running drug ads on major networks. Nader does not have a drug war ad.

"Nader simply wants to end the current drug war and decriminalize marijuana; his is not a principled stand to end prohibition, like Harry Browne's," Dayton concluded.

Dayton's remarks notwithstanding, in recent days Nader has spoken out more forcefully for marijuana legalization and ending the drug war. In Madison, Wisconsin, on Wednesday, Nader's denunciation of the drug war drew the most enthusiastic response of any from his largely student audience. That appearance was taped for "Hardball with Chris Matthews," and aired nationwide on MSNBC.

Activists universally trashed Gore for his retreat on medical marijuana, while going somewhat easier on his Republican counterpart, perhaps because they never expected anything from George Bush in the first place.

Allen St. Pierre of NORML is frustrated with both candidates' positions on medical marijuana. "Gore has flip-flopped on medical marijuana," he snorted, "a year ago he supported it, but now he's stuck to the party line that there is no science supporting it, which is totally false."

"And Bush," said St. Pierre, "says he supports states' rights but will vigorously enforce federal law. That's a classic have-it-both-ways answer."

Thomas shares St. Pierre's frustration -- in spades. "Medical marijuana is the simplest test of whether Bush and Gore are really trying to be compassionate or whether they are just warmongers out to please the prison lobby and the law enforcement bureaucracy," said Thomas. "On that issue, both have failed miserably. Gore talked early about distributing medical marijuana, but now he has the Clinton position. He doesn't care how sick you are, if you're on your deathbed, if you put a joint in your mouth you're going to jail."

For Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy (CSDP), Gore's reversals on medical marijuana "make it very difficult for drug policy people to support Gore." He told DRCNet, "Patients are angry. During the Texas Jubilee Journey for Justice, we did a demonstration at the Democratic Party headquarters in Austin and had patients smoking in the office, much to the consternation of the party officials."

"We need to see more of that, particularly in California, where the issue is so contested right now," Zeese suggested.

So, what else are people interested in drug policy reform to do?

Thomas minced no words in describing his solution to the drug war deadlock. "People who support reform on drug policy need to vote single issue."

He doesn't buy the "lesser of two evils" argument. "When I talk to liberals and I tell them I will not vote for Gore because of his drug policies, they tell me how great his other policies are and tell me how much worse Bush is. My response to them is, 'Well, you better convince Al Gore to take a more favorable position on drugs if you want my vote.'"

"If people start voting single issue, in one of these elections one major party candidate will win because the other candidate lost all of the drug reform votes to a third party candidate," argued Thomas.

"When someone loses because he didn't take a good position on drug policy, then we'll start to see real victories," he added.

"There are already 20 to 30% who say they favor ending the drug war," Thomas continued. "If only half of those folks would vote single issue on drugs, we could turn this around within two elections."

CSDP's Ehlers also advocates single-issue voting. "If we want to end drug war, then yes, we must vote single issue. If Gore had taken stronger stands, there's a good chance I would have voted for him. But because of his backsliding, especially on medical marijuana, there's no way."

"I see the Democrats' point of view," Ehlers continued, "but they need a swift kick in the ass. They've taken people's votes for granted for too long; maybe they need to lose an election."

For NORML's Allen St. Pierre, the single-issue voter strategy is not so appealing. "It's hard to imagine that the drug war can be reduced to a single issue that would motivate people to vote for or against," he argued. "Generally," said St. Pierre, "single issues are falling by the wayside. Even the abortion people sometimes vacillate."

"Focus and polling groups don't necessarily tell reformers that the public is so willing," St. Pierre suggested, "but one can look at the other candidates. All of them -- Harry Browne, Ralph Nader, even John Hagelin -- are wearing their opposition to the drug war, and especially the war on marijuana, on their sleeves. They must see opportunities there."

The drug reform movement appears united only in its antipathy to the status quo as it confronts the quadrennial dilemma of the political outsider. Given the way the movement cuts across left-right ideological lines, with its conservative diehards who really believed Ronald Reagan would "get the government off the backs of the people"; with its liberals, Libertarians, and libertines; with its "good government" reformers and would-be treatment providers; with its disaffected cops and dismayed judges -- given a movement with such a complex and sometimes contradictory character, such diversity of opinion is not only welcome, it is no surprise.

-- END --
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Issue #158, 11/3/00 Initiative Endorsements: YES on 3, 5, 8, 9, 20, 36, B, G | Drug Policy in the 2000 Elections: The Dog That Didn't Bark and Races of Note | Reformers' Dilemma: Frick, Frack, or a Prophet from the Wilderness? | Cannabis, Free Speech Issues Converge in Florida, Massachusetts | Follow That Story: Justice Department to Investigate Tulia, Civil Rights Complaint Filed | Hawaii Inches Forward on Medical Marijuana, Rejects DEA Eradication Funds | Municipal Drug Testing On the Way Out in Washington State | Maryland/DC Reports Illustrate Failure and Harm of Drug Prohibition | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: Different Ideals, Same Conclusions
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