Strange Days in the Land of Enchantment: Drug Reform Groups Play Key Role as Battle Over Gov. Johnson's Package Heats Up 1/26/01

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These are strange and exciting times in New Mexico. The head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) arranging meetings from the governor's suite at the state capitol and holding press briefings in his office. A Republican state legislator handing out free movie passes for "Traffic" (paid for by The Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation) to his fellow solons. A former Democratic governor, Toney Anaya, and a former Republican state senator and current GOP national committeeman, Albuquerque lawyer Mickey Barnett, hired by the same folks as a lobbying tag-team. All working to shepherd Republican Gov. Gary Johnson's drug reform package through the state's hurried 60-day legislative session. (The eight-bill package, a comprehensive reform effort including marijuana decriminalization, medical marijuana, and substantial sentencing and asset forfeit reforms, is described in greater detail at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/168.html#newmexico.)

As Gov. Johnson presses forward with his reform package, drug reformers are walking the halls of power, and that is something new.

"It's a real sea change," an audibly beaming Keith Stroup told DRCNet. "We've been waiting for a long time for a sitting governor to invite us down to help on a decrim bill and a medical marijuana bill."

It's been a long time in the wilderness for people like Stroup, founder and Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Hell, back in the mid-70s in California, State Assembly leader Moscone let us use a desk in his office... but not since then," he mused.

But now NORML and the slightly more straight-laced Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation are in, in a big way. NORML last week began a $50,000 print and radio advertising campaign, and Stroup told DRCNet their 600 sixty-second radio spots would run for another week.

The ads are "soft ads," said Stroup, meaning they did not advocate a specific position on a specific piece of legislation and thus could be financed with tax-deductible contributions. But, Stroup said, "if it seems appropriate and helpful, we may try to come up with money for a direct advocacy ad campaign, a more pointed, 'contact your representative and support bill such-and-such.'"

Stroup spent part of this week in New Mexico with noted marijuana experts John Morgan and Lynn Zimmer, authors of the authoritative "Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts," who traveled there at NORML's expense to meet with and educate legislators and others on the issues.

"I'm going back there next week, and I'm taking Lester Grinspoon [Harvard Medical School professor and author of "Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine] this time," Stroup enthused.

"We had to be part of this," Stroup insisted. "We were invited down by the governor's staff, but we would have been involved anyway. When they specifically asked us to run a series of ads and bring down experts, it seemed all the more positive and worthwhile."

The Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation, for its part, has also been busy. It partially funded the governor's Drug Policy Advisory Group, which not only recommended radical changes, but also cleared the political underbrush for Gov. Johnson. And its affiliate, the Center for Policy Reform, put up the money for the high-powered, high-dollar lobbyists, the Associated Press reported. Former governor Anaya and insider attorney Barnett are expected to work their considerable connections in New Mexico political circles on the package's behalf.

In a statement announcing his hiring and demonstrating his spinning skills, Anaya said he and Barnett agreed the state should adopt a drug policy that "imprisons traffickers, educates kids to stay away from drugs and provides treatment for those addicted."

The center also has three full-time employees now based in New Mexico, led by Katharine Huffman, director of the center's New Mexico Drug Policy Project.

But despite the presence of some of the drug reform movement's big guns, the prospects for Johnson's package remain uncertain. While some legislators are beginning to come on board, opposition remains fierce.

State Rep. Ron Godbey (R-Albuquerque), a bitter, long-time foe of Johnson's views on drug reform, told the Albuquerque Tribune the reform efforts were the work of legalizers in sheep's clothing.

"It's not the medical community that's asking for this," he said, "it's the druggies."

Godbey and his allies will undoubtedly play up the "legalizing billionaire" bogeyman, as he has done in the past, most notably in a "white paper" he distributed last year. In it, he called decriminalization "a half-baked idea that has been tried... over and over again." Godbey also wrote, "While advocating drug legalization, Gov. Johnson aligns himself with a small, well-financed group of acknowledged drug users who are pushing drug legalization in the United States."

But even Godbey supports one of the governor's reform bills, on asset forfeiture, he told the Tribune.

More important for the package's prospects is the attitude of the legislative leadership, and neither party's leaders displayed much enthusiasm.

"I was very disappointed that he had to ask us as legislators to promote his drug plan," House Speaker Ben Lujan (D-Nambe) said. "There are very many more important issues that we need to address. I don't know that New Mexico should lead the way in this area."

House minority leader Ted Hobbs (R-Albuquerque) was equally unenthused. "Most of it (drug reform) is dead-on-arrival in my opinion. Reducing sentences is not very popular," he told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

But there are also signs of increased support in the legislature. Prominent Democratic Rep. Max Coll told the New Mexican he could support the package if the budget is "salted" with money for substance-abuse rehabilitation programs.

Johnson has been vociferously criticized for his repeated refusals to fund treatment programs.

The package has also garnered sympathy from Sen. Roman Maes (D-Santa Fe), who said he generally supports Johnson's proposals.

"There's not a family in this state that hasn't been touched by drugs in some way," Maes said. "Just putting (drug abusers) in jail is not the solution," Maes said. "Society has to take the blinders off."

And Johnson has found a sponsor for the marijuana decriminalization bill, easily the most controversial of the bunch. Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-Albuquerque) agreed to sponsor the bill decriminalizing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana by adults, he told the Albuquerque Tribune earlier this week.

Quick action is unlikely, with the legislative leadership vowing to tackle a host of other issues first, but with a 60-day session the medium-term is fast approaching.

NORML's Stroup is upbeat. "I feel very positive and optimistic," he told DRCNet. "The governor has done his homework, his proposals are all well-reasoned. Each bill will be introduced by a bipartisan group."

"I think a victory on medical marijuana is very likely, and there's a good shot at passing decrim," he prophesied.

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Issue #170, 1/26/01 Strange Days in the Land of Enchantment: Drug Reform Groups Play Key Role as Battle Over Gov. Johnson's Package Heats Up | Pataki Fleshes Out Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Package | Clinton Commutes a Few More Drug Sentences at Last Minute | Columbia: New Administration in Washington, Same Old Game? | Chapare, Bolivia Community Charges Torture and Human Rights Violations by US-funded Anti-Drug Force | New RAND Study Finds Federal Agencies Overstate Drug Treatment and Prevention Spending | Belgium Decriminalizes Marijuana for Personal Use, Users Must Grow Their Own or Buy it in the Netherlands, Says Government | New Zealand Parliament Again Reviewing Cannabis Laws | Bush on Drugs: The New President Speaks Up to CNN | Calling All Activists: Ashcroft, Hemp | The Reformer's Calendar: LA, Philly, Portland, New York, DC, SF, Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Fort Bragg, Miami, Amsterdam, New Delhi
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