Drug Reform and the Democratic Presidential Nominating Process 6/13/03

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Last week, DRCNet presented the views of the nine announced Democratic contenders for the 2004 presidential nomination -- and apart from the progressive drug reform plank of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who is not considered a first-tier candidate, we didn't find much beyond rote drug war rhetoric, with a few nods to drug treatment thrown in here and there (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/290.shtml#demsondrugs). We also found that in these times of a troubled economy, the "war on terrorism" and the occupation of Iraq, drug policy is barely on the political horizon. This week, DRCNet spoke with drug reform leaders from across the country to see how they view the race and the role of the drug reform movement in influencing it.

The consensus seems to be that, aside from medical marijuana, drug reform is unlikely to be an issue at play in the campaigns, and even for medical marijuana to become a prominent issue will require constant pressure on candidates and at least one of the front-tier candidates to attempt to use it to break out of the back -- most probably in California, where the issue is hotter than anywhere else. While pressure is mounting to do something about mandatory minimum sentences, racial profiling and related issues, it is unlikely the Democratic candidates will embrace those issues. Additionally, said some, the drug reform movement is still too weak and still generates too much organized opposition to have a positive impact on the campaigns. And reform groups are spending their resources accordingly.

Political campaign veteran Bill Zimmerman, whose Campaign for New Drug Policies (http://www.drugreform.org) won a long string of ballot initiatives before running into stiff opposition last year, doesn't see much chance for the drug reform movement to influence the process, he told DRCNet. "It's not worth it for the candidates," said Zimmerman. "Drug reform is not that salient to the average voter, and Democratic politicians still fear being attacked for being soft on drugs. Given that it is not a salient issue for most people, why take the chance?"

Also, Zimmerman noted, focusing on the presidency to change the country's drug laws may be putting the cart before the horse. "A president's ability to affect drug reform and the country's drug laws is limited by public opinion, and we have not yet succeeded in moving public opinion to the point where a president can feel safe moving to change the laws," he said. Nor does Zimmerman expect that to change anytime soon. "That sort of change won't happen without massive public education, and that requires either massive expenditures or vastly increased access to the media, and I don't see any sign of either happening," he said.

If it's not worth it for the candidates, said Zimmerman, it's not worth it for his organization. "We're not doing anything related to the nomination campaign," he said.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org), which was closely associated with the Campaign for New Drug Policies' initiatives, largely agreed, but still pointed to some areas where the movement can have an impact. The drug reform movement's ability to impact the nomination campaign is "minimal, but more than ever before," said Nadelmann. The movement draws some leverage "from the fact that there is a growing number of wealthy individuals who are both prominent drug reform supporters and engaged in trying to get the Democrats back in power." Nadelmann has been able to get meetings with candidates Dean, Gephardt and Graham, he told DRCNet. "One reason I've been able to do that is because one of our funders is very involved with the Democratic campaign committee. That gives us some access; for the first time, the candidates are obliged to sit and listen to us respectfully."

Also giving the drug reform movement some heft, Nadelmann said, were victories at the ballot box. "With victories in the ballot initiatives, especially Proposition 36 in California, we've shown we have a substantial majority on issues like treatment instead of incarceration, asset forfeiture reform and medical marijuana. We've shown we can win," he said.

"What we have not shown is that we can get people to vote based on these issues. If we could show more strength, the candidates would at least have to give lip service to supporting treatment over incarceration, getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences and getting rid of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity," Nadelmann continued. "A sign of our continuing political weakness is that we can't even get the candidates to make a clear statement on medical marijuana, even when we have three-quarters of the voters on our side. I find this very troubling. And we can't even get them to mention mandatory minimums and those other issues."

Still, said Nadelmann, the reform movement can seek to raise its profile at several levels. "At the elite level, the more big donors raise these issues in those small meetings and dinners with candidates, the more these guys will feel they have to say something positive. And at the mass level, it makes sense to keep stirring this up. I don't think it's worth a major investment of drug reform resources, but maybe worth putting out some modest resources for billboards and ensuring that we have a constant presence at forums and debates. If we can keep the issues popping up all the time, the candidates will eventually feel pressured to come up with coherent and hopefully reformist positions."

Also, Nadelmann suggested, "We need to come up with better evidence about how this issue can work for the candidates. It is possible, just look at New York. Even the Republicans feel like it is in their interest to support reforming the Rockefeller laws. The fact that even they feel the need to call for reform, that's a major step."

Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (http://www.cjpf.org) was more optimistic than Zimmerman or Nadelmann and advocated a full blitz on the early and manageably-sized primary states. "I think the movement could easily influence the Democratic candidates with some effective organizing in New Hampshire and Iowa," Sterling said. "Right now every Democratic candidate is practically going door-to-door in those two states. They are visiting living rooms, cafes, schools, county fairs, and spending a lot of time listening to the voters and shaping their messages. We need to mobilize our supporters to go to those meetings and seek out the candidates to ask them why they don't strongly support medical marijuana, especially since Bush and company are so vehemently against it. They should raise this issue every time they see the candidate."

The movement could benefit from doing some grunt work, said Jodi James of the Florida Cannabis Action Network and a former state congressional candidate. "It's important to become active in your local and state parties right now," she told DRCNet. "I'm a delegate to the state conference through the local Executive Committee and through the state Democratic Women's movement. We already know several of the candidates scheduled at our state conference this year."

It's time to call out the youth wing, too, said Sterling. "We need to organize every college campus in Iowa and New Hampshire to put on some drug policy reform forum every month from September to January so that the issues are raised at least every week. Students need to be organized to raise this issue and to offer to volunteer for the candidates who take the best position."

The marijuana-oriented groups and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org) are attempting to do a little of that. The Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) is putting a modest amount of money into efforts to influence the campaign, primarily with its Granite Staters web site (http://www.GraniteStaters.com), comparing the candidates' positions on medical marijuana. "We're using the web site to focus on medical marijuana and educate the public about where the candidates stand," said MPP director of government relations Steve Fox. "We'll be very active in New Hampshire, with a full-time staffer there through January putting together events to raise the issue's profile and explain it to New Hampshire voters," he told DRCNet. "We'll see what kind of impact we can produce there, and go from there," he said. MPP is also forming a political action committee, Fox said. It should be up and running soon, he added.

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) executive director Keith Stroup largely shared the glum assessments and his group is behaving accordingly. "We don't have much leverage," Stroup told DRCNet. "Most candidates will duck drug reform. It barely registers with them. If they do take a stand, it's usually just trying to be tougher on drugs than the next guy. Still, according to the latest CNN/Time poll, 47% of adult Americans have smoked marijuana -- and that is probably underreported. And 80% of voters support medical marijuana, and 70% could live with fines for pot smokers. That's a huge potential base of support."

But given NORML's assessment of its influence on the candidates, it is limiting its nomination-related projects to a candidate questionnaire and a man on the ground in New Hampshire. "We'll be trying to birddog the candidates on the issues with the questionnaire, and we've got New Hampshire NORML's Phil Greazzo up there getting to every candidate he can. People don't understand that when you go to those candidate meetings up there, sometimes there are only 20 or 30 people. You can get your question asked if you're persistent. Greazzo did it with Gore last time, and got him to be very positive about medical marijuana -- at least until he left New Hampshire." Greazzo will attempt to work with MPP's man in New Hampshire, Stroup added.

SSDP executive director Shawn Heller told DRCNet his group would have bodies on the ground in New Hampshire if it could get funding. "We're looking for money right now," he said.

If there is one issue and one state where some reformers are hoping to see movement, the issue is medical marijuana and the state is California. "California is the one state where this is a higher priority issue, thanks to John Ashcroft," said NORML's Stroup. "It is also a historical hotbed of marijuana activism. All the candidates will spend a lot of time there, and they will be asked about medical marijuana. I can't imagine many of them are going to want to support the federal government's position," he said.

Even Zimmerman conceded that medical marijuana could make the candidates' and the public's radar screen there. "It would be because of all the federal intervention," he said, "and what happens in California could have an impact down the road since we have an early primary this time." Particularly vulnerable in California is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Zimmerman said. "He's received a lot of financial support from the entertainment industry folks in LA, and they are very supportive of medical marijuana. He could be leaned on. The public needs to understand that he is a politician first and a physician second. If those roles were reversed, he would not have acted as he did in Vermont."

Steph Sherer and Americans for Safe Access, (http://www.safeaccessnow.org), the medical marijuana advocacy group that believes the best defense is a good offense, will work their home turf hard on the medical marijuana issue, Sherer told DRCNet. "We're already working with Dennis Kucinich [Sherer and Mike Gray essentially drafted Kucinich's drug policy plank], and we'll continue to do so to ensure he is able to effectively frame the issue," she said. "We're also going to a presentation at the California Council of Democratic Clubs, and we are in the process of putting together a platform on medical marijuana that we can shop around to California candidates."

ASA is also massaging other presidential nominee candidates, she added. "We're putting together packets for Dean and John Edwards. The packets compile all their statements on medical marijuana and show them how uneducated their positions are," Sherer said.

As soon as Dennis Kucinich came out in support of medical marijuana, Edwards and Dean were put on the spot, Sherer added. That's good -- as long as Kucinich can stay in the race. "If Kucinich can stay alive and keep bringing this up and use it to hammer the other candidates, we might see some movement," said MPP's Fox.

And while attention is focused on the Democrats, don't forget the Republicans, several people said. "The Democrats need to return to being the voice of progressive change if they want to win, but we haven't given up on the Republicans, either," said Sherer. "When you're talking 80% support for medical marijuana, you're catching people across the political spectrum."

Zimmerman agreed that drug reform is not a strictly partisan issue. "There is a partisan dimension here, but that dimension is not controlling," he said. "Polling shows more support for various reforms from Democrats than Republicans, but there are nevertheless significant minorities among Republican and independent voters who favor drug reform."

And in a surprising prediction, Nadelmann suggested that it might be the Republicans who move first. "After two years, the Bush people need to tack to the center for votes and to eat away at the Democratic base," he said. "If the Democrats don't move on issues like sentencing reform and mandatory minimums, I'd bet even money that Bush will put forward modest sentencing reforms next year."

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Issue #291, 6/13/03 Editorial: The Rule of Law | Global Social Forum Meeting in Cartagena to Draw Broad Spectrum of Global Activists for Colombia Focus -- DRCNet Will Be There | Anatomy of a Victory: How Reformers Rolled Back Souder and the Drug Czar | Ontario Marijuana Laws in the Twilight Zone | Jacksonville Hemp Fest Marred by Police Violence, Warrant Issued for Organizer for Obstructing (In)Justice | Drug Reform and the Democratic Presidential Nominating Process | Sad Day in the Medical Marijuana Movement: Medical Marijuana Patient and Activist Cheryl Miller Passes Away at 57 | DRCNet Urgently Needs Your Donations -- Sullum Book Offer Still Going | This Week in History | Newsbrief: European Union Presidency Calls for Frank Discussion of Drug Laws | Newsbrief: Demonstrations Mark Thailand Drug War Killings | Newsbrief: Oregon Medical Marijuana Provider Gets Prison Time | Newsbrief: Drug Czar Declares War on Summer | Newsbrief: Supreme Courts Again Says No to Cincinnati Drug Zone Ban Law | The Reformer's Calendar
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