Tom Golisano, the independent candidate for New York governor, didn't succeed in knocking off Republican incumbent Gov. George Pataki, but his last minute TV and radio ad blitz in New York City markets supporting medical marijuana may well have doomed the efforts of the New York Marijuana Reform Party (http://www.marijuanareform.org), as well as the Libertarians and the Greens, to win ballot line status for the next four years. Gubernatorial candidates needed to win 50,000 votes statewide to earn that status. The MRP's Tom Leighton pulled in only 22,500 votes, and he's pointing a big finger at the Golisano campaign.
"He ripped off our position, he ripped off our brochure -- his ads repeated the identical factual error we had in our brochure -- and he ripped off our voters," Leighton told DRCNet. "I never saw such an assault on public consciousness as his medical marijuana media campaign here. You could see his ads 10 or 15 times in one evening. When we were out handing out fliers to voters and urging them to support medical marijuana, they would say, 'yes, I'm voting for Golisano.'"
Although Leighton wanted to wait until final results were certified so the party could see if it had lost votes in New York City since the last election, which he presumes went to Golisano this year, he was convinced the Golisano campaign was a major factor in the MRP's inability to crack the 50,000 vote mark. "The Golisano factor was very important," said Leighton, "but he actually worked against medical marijuana because he took votes away from parties that do support it. His people actually had the gall to call for my help on this, and then in their mailings they claimed Golisano was the only candidate in favor of medical marijuana," he said.
While Golisano may have taken unfair advantage of MRP positions and materials, Leighton's view of what Golisano's pro-medical marijuana stance accomplished is colored by the losses his party suffered at Golisano's hands. Other New York activists have lauded Golisano for raising public awareness of the issue, including Tony Papa, former Rockefeller drug law prisoner turned activist. Papa appeared in a Golisano ad focusing on the Rockefeller drug laws.
"We're the Rodney Dangerfield of the drug reform movement -- we don't get no respect," complained Leighton, and he wasn't just talking about Golisano. "We got no support from the movement. For a tiny fraction of the money spent on those failed initiatives, we could have gotten on the ballot. It seems like NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), and the Drug Policy Alliance have sewn up all the big money, and we couldn't get a dime out of them." (NORML did in fact work with MRP and give them $500; issue #265 of the Week Online includes a retraction and apology from Leighton, ran at his request.)
If MPP isn't funding Leighton, it's not for lack of interest in New York state. MPP's Chad Thevenot told DRCNet that the group has provided a grant to veteran New York activist and lobbyist Vince Marrone to construct a coalition to push a medical marijuana bill in the state assembly next year. "Marrone is really running the show up there," said Thevenot, "but unlike most of our grants, part of this involves continuing consultations with us, in part because we have expertise that's relevant."
Marrone confirmed that work is underway. "For the past three or four months, we've been meeting with all the groups even tangentially involved in the issue -- medical groups, labor, church groups, patients, you name it," he told DRCNet. "We have created New Yorkers for Compassionate Care as a coalition group to advance our agenda. We will be doing all of the traditional kinds of advocacy efforts in coming months -- media work, lobbying, press conferences, all of that," he said. "We have a bill that has never moved in the Assembly, but Dick Gottfried (D), chair of the Assembly committee on health, has agreed to put it on the agenda," said Marrone, adding that hearings have been scheduled for December 13 in New York City and sometime in January in Albany.
Medical marijuana has strong support in New York, said Marrone, citing a 1999 poll that showed 80% in favor. "We'll be doing another poll in January, and we expect to see the same sorts of numbers," he added.
The coalition is counting on local activists, said Marrone. "Local activists are the base for what we're doing, and the biggest group we've tapped into so far is the AIDS community. We need local activists -- as long as they're working on medical marijuana. Some have a broader agenda," he said.
That would include the MRP, which favors legalization of the herb. "I've been talking to Marrone," said Leighton, whose enthusiasm for the coalition is dampened, though, by MRP's lack of funding and no offer of a leadership role in the new campaign.
Leighton has also been talking with his membership about the future of the party. "We are not sure what will happen yet," he said. "With the big money choosing not to help us, we could only go so far. We will probably continue in some fashion, but the question is what fashion. Our first thought was to regroup as a political action committee, but we don't have the fundraising network. We might become just an issue advocacy group," he told DRCNet. "We will try to decide by sometime in January."
MRP is also pushing a measure before the New York City council that asks the state legislature to enact a comprehensive medical marijuana program created and overseen by physicians, Leighton said. "If we can get that passed, I would hope that someone will consider our experience and the value we can bring to the movement," he said.
Meanwhile, as MPP funds a medical marijuana effort and the MRP tries to figure out what to do next, New York City continues to account for almost one-tenth of marijuana arrests in the United States.