Leaving aside drug policy initiatives on the ballot in several states, the role of drug policy in this year's elections is, with a few notable exceptions, minimal. This state of affairs, while disappointing to activists who live and breathe the issue, may not be as dire as it would appear at first glance.
At the least, this year we do not have candidates waving bags of white powder at TV cameras and demanding an escalation of the War on Drugs. Instead, Democrats and Republicans alike appear to have concluded that "tough on crime" stances and the War on Drugs have reached a point of diminishing political returns. Whether from lack of ideas or from lack of fortitude, the attitude of most major party candidates toward drug policy is "it's broke, but don't fix it." Better to whistle past the graveyard as their bipartisan consensus on drug policy crumbles at the edges.
And gnawing at those edges are the Green and Libertarian parties. Both have strong drug reform planks in their platforms, although the Libertarian platform is unquestionably the more ideologically coherent and radical on drug policy. Both parties' candidates, both at the national level and for state and local offices, hammer away at drug reform, although again, the Libertarians have been more consistent and insistent.
According to the party's official web site, http://www.lp.org, the party will run more than 1,420 candidates for local, state, and federal office this year, the most in party history, and more than all other alternative parties combined.
Libertarians are running 256 candidates for the US House of Representatives, 26 for the Senate, and nine for governor. The 256 House candidates mark the first time in 80 years that any third party has fielded candidates in a majority of congressional districts, according to Ballot Access News. The Socialist Party last did it in 1920.
They have also run strong ads on drug policy on national television. The most recent, which has appeared on CNN and the Sci-Fi Channel, emphasizes the lengthy prison sentences many drug offenders are serving and has Browne asking whether "Al Gore and George Bush would be better off today if, for their youthful indiscretions, they had served 10 years in prison?"
The ad can be viewed online at http://www.harrybrowne2000.org/misc/warning.htm.
Still, the party's national standard bearer, Harry Browne, is struggling to climb above 1% in national polls, and he has been effectively excluded from the major media. NBC's Meet the Press, for instance, invited Ralph Nader and Reform candidate Patrick Buchanan to debate, but did not invite Brown even though he leads Buchanan in most polls. Neither do Libertarian candidates appear poised to substantially influence the outcome in other races.
In the one senate race where a major party candidate, California Republican Rep. Tom Campbell, has made drug reform a major issue, he will be easily defeated by incumbent drug warrior Senator Dianne Feinstein, according to all polls. Pollsters have Campbell running ten to twenty points behind Feinstein.
It is unclear to what extent Campbell's stand on drug reform has gained or cost him votes. Feinstein is a formidable, well-financed, and popular incumbent.
What is clear is that Campbell's proposals, which include heroin maintenance programs, increased access to drug treatment, and an end to the country's "lost" war on drugs, have generated significant news coverage for him -- and for the issue.
Campbell's repeated calls for drug reform have forced Feinstein to respond, and while she revels in her drug warrior stance that "I think the people who deal in narcotics are the worst people in the world and I'm going to stand against them whenever I have a chance" -- she has had to debate the issue with Campbell.
Campbell told the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board he was "thrilled" to raise the issue of drug reform and that Feinstein "has attempted to demonize the issue and thereby lower the debate."
In one of this year's electoral ironies, Campbell's appeal to drug reform voters could be diluted by an aggressive and well-known Green Party candidate, Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange.
"The war on drugs is an excuse for making war on poor communities of color and an excuse for US intervention overseas," Benjamin told the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The Greens, she says, "call for harm-reduction policies: needle exchange, medical marijuana, the decriminalization of marijuana."
"We think drug addiction should be treated as a health problem, not a criminal-justice problem. But we put it in the context of the prison-industrial complex: there are too many people in prison, serving sentences that are way disproportionate to their crimes."
In one incident, Benjamin supporters laid siege to a TV station where Campbell and Feinstein debated, but Benjamin was excluded. Her Northern California campaign director was among those arrested.
In the Florida senate race, reformers can take heart in the looming defeat of Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, one of the movement's most intransigent foes. McCollum was a sponsor of the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, opposes medical marijuana, supports Plan Colombia (although he doesn't think it goes far enough), and in general has not seen a piece of repressive legislation he couldn't support.
He has consistently trailed Democratic candidate Bill Nelson, a former state treasurer, in polls, with the latest polls showing him losing by seven to ten points. Drug policy has not been an issue in that campaign, but it appears likely that McCollum will still be gone next year.
Kentucky's 6th Congressional district, where long-time marijuana activist Gatewood Galbraith is running on the Reform Party ticket, is a disappointment. Despite gaining 30% of the gubernatorial vote in that district in 1998, Galbraith is polling only 8% now.
The incumbent in that race, Republican Ernie Fletcher, has been targeted by activists from Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) for his vote in favor of barring students with drug convictions from obtaining student loans. He leads his Democratic opponent, Scotty Baesler, by a margin of 42% to 36%, according to a Lexington Herald-Leader/WKYT-TV survey. (Note that SSDP as an organization takes no position on candidates.)
Although Galbraith's pro-marijuana, pro-gun, "don't tread on me" campaign trails badly, the number of his voters exceeds the spread between Fletcher and Baesler, and a strong Galbraith vote could arguably send Fletcher back to Washington. But with the Galbraith candidacy's unusual appeal to disaffected throughout the political spectrum, it is difficult to gauge whom he is hurting more.
In Washington, DC, the Marijuana Policy Project's Rob Kampia and activist Matt Mercurio are running a Libertarian tag-team campaign for DC "delegate" to Congress and for an at large position on the city council, respectively (http://www.kampia.org).
The duo and their supporters have plastered the city with bold "STOP the Drug War" and "Medical Marijuana Now!" campaign signs and, according to Kampia, have made drug policy the talk of the campaign.
"Everyone agrees that DC should have a congressional vote," Kampia told DRCNet, "so that issue is non-controversial. Drug policy is not. We are talking about drug reform versus sending large numbers of black men to prison, and that is what people want to talk about at community forums."
Kampia has realistic goals, though. "Our goal is that at least one of us gets 7500 votes, which is 5% of the electorate here. That would qualify the Libertarian Party as a major party in DC, so next time we could run a slate to advocate drug reform without having to overcome the onerous hurdles of petitioning to get our names on the ballot."
There are no polling figures available on the DC races.
Across the land, there are local brushfires of drug reform politicking, but these are isolated pockets, such as Boulder, Colorado, where local candidates for District Attorney all criticized current drug policy.
Still, despite a growing popular clamor for drug policy reform, the issue remains untouchable for most mainstream politicians. Some are still true believers, some may privately confess that current policy is a perverse failure, but the number who are willing to take the logical next step can be counted in the single digits.