Organizers of Michigan's "treatment not jail" initiative are getting a crash course in political hardball courtesy of political appointees in the state government and their allies in Washington, DC. The Michigan Drug Reform Initiative suffered a major -- possibly fatal -- blow on Monday when the Michigan Board of Canvassers balked at its wording. What should have been a simple matter of certifying petitions to put the initiative on the ballot instead became an opportunity for organized opponents to attack the initiative and for the Board to delay a decision on whether to approve the initiative for November.
The Board will reconvene next Tuesday to decide whether the initiative meets legislative requirements that it include the wording of all sections of the state constitution it would impact, but initiative organizers fear the worst. "I am apprehensive, given the way the powers-that-be in the state have lined up against us," said Maia J. Storm, a spokesperson for the initiative. "I am afraid the Board will force us to go to the courts, which are packed with Englerites [supporters of Michigan Gov. John Engler, who strongly opposes the measure]," she told DRCNet. "That could be the doom of the initiative. Everyone should be very upset by this maneuver; this is raw power politics being wielded to deny the people a chance to vote."
Opponents will need to rely on a stacked court, if their arguments against the initiative at the Board are any measure of their honesty. One opponent, Craig Yaldoo, head of the state health department's drug control unit, outrageously told the Board the measure would result in "the legalization of crack cocaine, heroin and PCP." Needless to say, the measure does not legalize any drugs.
While in-state foes of the measure appear to be manipulating the system in an anti-democratic fashion, Sen. John Conyers, the long-time Michigan Democrat, has lashed out at the DEA for attempting to lobby against the initiative. In a press release on August 23, Conyers accused the DEA of "possible misuse of federal funds without proper authorization by Congress and in contravention of existing law."
Conyers said: "It appears that the DEA has been actively engaged across the country in collaboration with groups who are opposed to ballot proposals involving reform of our drug laws. Citizens opposed to this kind of ballot initiative clearly are permitted to campaign and lobby in support of their point of view in an effort to win public support for their position. This is what our democracy is all about. But it is far from clear whether federally funded agencies and their employees can be used to spread a message or promote a campaign for or against a ballot initiative, on federal property and on government time.
"The use of our local DEA office by those opposed to the Drug Reform ballot initiative seems clearly in violation of Section 601 of Public Law 107-77 (November 28, 2001), which clearly states that no part of any appropriation for DEA can be used for 'publicity or propaganda purposes' not authorized by Congress. I am concerned that DEA has actively been involved in a campaign, both locally and nationally, to oppose drug reform proposals which have been properly and legally put before the citizens of this state for their approval or rejection. There seems little doubt that the appropriations for DEA are specifically prohibited from being used for this purpose. This apparently unlawful involvement of the DEA to promote a political agenda must cease immediately. We cannot allow the integrity of our national government to be compromised for any purpose, regardless of the intent of these over zealous federal activists. I am shocked that judges in violation of their Canon of Ethics would participate as well."
Conyers may be shocked, but such shenanigans are nothing new to Dane Waters, head of the Initiative and Referendum Institute (http://www.iandrinstitute.com), a nonpartisan watchdog group. "There has always been conflict between the government and the people on some ballot measures," he told DRCNet. "There have been cases where local officials let their prejudices show through; you often see that in supposedly neutral ballot summaries, but what is going on in Michigan appears to be one of the more blatant efforts," he said. "The Board is not specifically empowered to deal with the subject matter of the initiative, but the Board clearly knows the governor's position. And those Michigan judges, there have been cases where judges there really strained to get around the law."
"Nationally, there seems to be some collusion among federal and state governments about these drug policy issues," Waters told DRCNet. "They've seen how popular they are with the people. As far as the legality, it's hard to say. There is no distinct federal law on this, but my personal belief is what they're doing crosses the line. We've sent a FOIA to the DEA regarding what position they take on ballot measures and initiatives, but they haven't responded yet," he said. "If the head of the DEA wants to talk about the overall issue that's one thing, but when they start advocating a specific vote that's probably illegal activity," said Waters.
"The Republican establishment doesn't like all this drug policy reform, even though it is very clear, at least from election results since 1998, that voters support it," Waters continued. "You see similar things going on in Ohio (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/239.html#ohioelection) where Hope Taft and her husband the governor are trying to stop reform from occurring. Whether it's Asa Hutchison going to Nevada to badmouth the marijuana decrim, or President Bush, or Karl Rove, they are all doing what they can to stop these initiatives. They're saying if they can't beat it at the ballot box, they'll go the judicial route."
And so may the Michigan Drug Reform Initiative, said Storm. "There is a nasty pattern of DEA and state government spending money to oppose us. We are exploring our legal options."