Tom Leighton, head of the New York Marijuana Reform Party, wants to do twice as well in 2002 as he did in 1998. That year, he polled nearly 25,000 votes as the party's candidate for governor.
"Fifty thousand votes for governor gives the Marijuana Reform Party official status in New York state," Leighton told DRCNet. "That means the marijuana leaf, our party symbol, will show up on every state ballot for every election."
Because of peculiarities of New York state election laws, minor parties can wield influence far beyond their numbers at the polls. In the Empire State, candidates can run on the ticket of more than one party. If a minor party agrees with the position a major party candidate takes, it can also list that politician as its candidate. Votes for Rudy Giuliani, the Liberal Party candidate, added the margin of victory for Rudy Giuliani, the GOP candidate, in the 1993 New York City mayoral campaign.
"A candidate who supports ending prohibition could run as a Democrat or Republican and as the Marijuana Reform candidate," said Leighton. "This gives us visibility and the chance to play a role disproportionate to our numbers."
Such a strategy is necessary in a state where the major parties have been unresponsive, if not hostile, to marijuana legalization and where there is no opportunity for citizens to directly redress their grievances, Leighton argued. "We don't have the citizen initiative process in New York and the Democrats and Republicans aren't listening. Worse even, Pataki wants to increase some marijuana penalties as part of his Rockefeller reforms," he said. "The single-issue party strategy makes sense in these circumstances."
But it takes money, and the Marijuana Reform Party doesn't have a lot of that. Leighton scored 3% of the New York City mayoral vote in 1997 on a $500 budget, but aims to attract more serious funding for the upcoming campaigns. "To get on the ballot in New York City or New York state is a much less expensive endeavor than running an initiative campaign," he argued, "and with some substantial money, we can get some real bang for the buck. The party is an ongoing thing, building as time goes by until we have a lasting presence that only increases as the years pass."
The party is going to need the help as it prepares to field candidates for this fall's New York City elections and looks toward next year's statewide elections. It is already behind schedule, Leighton admitted. "We kept waiting for our new web site (http://www.marijuanareform.org) to launch the campaign. Now it's finally, belatedly up and now we have to scramble."
Leighton and his cadre of committed supporters -- primarily in New York City, but also scattered across upstate -- will mount a petition drive beginning on July 10th to get on the fall ballot for NYC elections, he said. Then it's on to the statewide campaign next year, and they're looking for allies.
"We have some ties to established drug reform groups, but I wish I could find a way to convince them of the validity of our strategy," Leighton mourned. "We can offer them a ballot line for candidates if we get the votes in 2002. We can help them, and they can help us. Next fall and spring we'll swing around the state; maybe we can meet then and convince them to hop on the bandwagon for 2002."
One of the groups he has in mind is ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy (http://www.reconsider.org), the upstate drug reform group. "We consider them allies, but I think they want legalization of all drugs and think marijuana alone is not enough, so they haven't jumped on board," he told DRCNet. "We think it won't all come at once, but I've heard great things about those folks and it would be great to get them working with us."
In the meantime, the Marijuana Reform Party is homing in on Mayor Giulani's crusade against marijuana users and one tactic in particular: reverse stings. Last year, Giuliani's police arrested more than 50,000 New Yorkers for smoking pot. In a comprehensive review of Giuliani's jihad on the party web site, "Rudy's Reefer Madness: Mayor Giuliani's Phony War on Drugs," Leighton recounts the New York Police Department's reliance on reverse stings, where officers attempt to sell marijuana to unwary passersby and then arrest those who succumb to the offer.
That practice is probably illegal under New York law, Leighton said, as well as being unquestionably immoral, if not downright silly. "The state court of appeals ruled in 1998 that police could not sell people oregano disguised as pot and then bust them for solicitation," he explained. The New York Times backs Leighton on this point. In its story on that court case, it quoted the Rochester Assistant District Attorney who argued the case, Thomas Morse, as saying the ruling "spells an end to sting operations involving marijuana."
Not in New York City. Responding to media queries from reporters contacted by Leighton, the department explained that its stings were legal because they were using real marijuana and were charging people with possession, not solicitation. That wasn't good enough for Leighton, who accused police of seizing on "technicalities" to continue the program.
"Police are dressing up in scruffy clothes and selling pot to people in order to protect people from drug dealers in scruffy clothes selling pot to people," he moaned. "This is an inappropriate, abusive and legally questionable tactic; they should know they're not going to get convictions on these cases. The amount of pot they are charged with is a violation, not a misdemeanor. When the legislature decriminalized possession in 1977, they did it because they didn't want to be going after people for small quantities of marijuana, but here is the NYPD setting up elaborate stings to bust people for a ticketable offense."
Whether the Marijuana Reform Party can gain the dollars and allies to achieve its goals this year and next remains to be seen. But Tom Leighton isn't going away.