California's voters, in all their wisdom, chose an unknown quantity in electing political neophyte Arnold Schwarzenegger as their new governor in the Tuesday recall election. The Austrian-born action film actor cruised to victory in change-hungry California without taking specific stands on the issues, instead getting by on a combination of celebrity worship, mass media fascination, and speeches consisting primarily of platitudes and buzzwords. Schwarzenegger boldly announced he was for "change" and against "politicians." That was good enough for 48% of the voters, and 48% was good enough to make him governor. But for drug reformers in the Golden State, along with many other policy observers, Schwarzenegger's victory raises more questions than it answers.
Schwarzenegger's storied past, replete with unrepentant tales of marijuana smoking during his wild youth, and his identification as a "socially liberal" Republican, provide reformers with some hope that, at the least, he will not be an ardent drug warrior. But the composition of his team of advisors, including most notoriously former Gov. Pete Wilson, who built a political career on turning California prisons into a growth industry, is causing some serious jitters.
In the campaign itself, Schwarzenegger allowed that medical marijuana should be legal, but, as with so many other issues, did not go into specifics on that question. Neither did he offer up positions on other drug policy-related issues. It should be noted also that supporting medical marijuana in a state where 80% of voters approve of its use was neither controversial nor groundbreaking.
With so slender a public record to weigh, reformers who spoke with DRCNet this week about drug reform in the era of Arnold had little to go on but hope and speculation. "We don't really know what Schwarzenegger's election means," said Judith Appel, deputy director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance's (http://www.drugpolicy.org) Oakland office. "This is really the first time a major party candidate in a large state has been clear about the fact he used drugs," she pointed out. "I don't know how that will translate into any kind of drug policy reform, though," she conceded.
"This is just bizarre," said Hilary McQuie of Americans for Safe Access (http://www.safeaccessnow.org), the grassroots group leading an aggressive defense of California medical marijuana in the face federal assaults. "All bets are off when it comes to Schwarzenegger," she told DRCNet. "Nobody knows what he is going to do, how much he will be influenced by the Bush administration or the Kennedy family. Nor do we know whether he will be a corporate lackey or will be independent because of his wealth and lack of previous political connections."
"Well, it's a new day for California," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML (http://www.canorml.org). "I hope the new governor, with all his talk about not raising taxes, will be mindful of all the waste in marijuana and drug law enforcement," he told DRCNet. But Gieringer, too, was unsure which way Schwarzenegger will lean on drug reform issues. "He has shown that he's a moderate Republican on social issues with liberal views on medical marijuana, but that's the mainstream view here in California," said Gieringer. "Certainly he shouldn't be pointing the finger at people for smoking pot, given his history. The question is how far will he go down the path of drug reform?"
Whatever Schwarzenegger does, the consensus among California reformers is that he will be better than ousted Gov. Gray Davis, who steadfastly refused to sign progressive reform bills and who, beholden to the powerful prison guards' union, oversaw the fruition of Pete Wilson's draconian vision of a state with more money for prisons than for colleges. "Gray Davis was terrible," said Gieringer. "He blocked sentencing reduction bills, he wouldn't sign the needle bill, he didn't even wholeheartedly support medical marijuana. Gray's loss is no loss in that regard."
"Davis didn't make any friends among reformers," agreed ASA's McQuie, "or among people interested in the public health and other normally Democratic constituencies. He has some good people working under him, whom I hope Schwarzenegger will keep on, but their hands were tied by Davis."
Only the Drug Policy Alliance, which still hopes to work with Davis to get him to sign pending reform legislation before he leaves office, declined to badmouth the outgoing governor. "Gray Davis has a chance to adjust his legacy by signing these bills he has been sitting on," said Appel.
As for Schwarzenegger, Appel said, he could give an early indication of support for drug reform if, in the event Davis neither vetoes nor signs the needle purchase or medical marijuana registration bills Davis has so far ignored, Schwarzenegger picks up the governor's pen and makes the bills law. "We hope that he will be positive on these issues. We hope when he says he supports medical marijuana that means he will sign Senate Bill 420 [medical marijuana registration] if it is still on the governor's desk," Appel said. "We hope we can work with him on drug policy reform."
The state's $8 billion budget deficit and Schwarzenegger's vow, reiterated since his victory, not to raise taxes, leave a huge potential opening, the reformers suggested. "Money spent imprisoning drug offenders is not money well spent," said Appel. "Hopefully, Schwarzenegger's emphasis on education and the fact there is no money will lead him to see that. He isn't beholden to the prison guards' union, and we can only hope he will surround himself with people who are open to being educated about drug reform."
"Schwarzenegger prides himself on being free of special interest entanglements," agreed Gieringer. "Everybody knows the prison guards' union has wielded substantial power over Davis with its contributions. Let's hope that Schwarzenegger will take a fresh look at the prison situation and the crime creation program that is our drug laws."
Even with all the doubts about Schwarzenegger and drug reform, Gieringer, at least, saw some other good coming from the election. "This just might break the grip the moralistic far-right Christians have on the state Republican party," he suggested. "The reason California has been so Democratic is that all the Republicans candidates have been anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-environment, anti-gun control. Now we have a Republican governor who supports all those things and the state Republicans are eating crow. This could have a salutary effect on the party here, and that could be a good thing, because the Democrats need some competition. If we can get the state GOP out of the hands of the blue meanies, maybe Democrats would not have to bear the burden alone of passing drug reform and other progressive legislation."