DRCNet Interview: Michael Badnarik, Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate 9/24/04

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DRCNet begins its coverage of drug policy and the presidential election season this year with Libertarian Party nominee Michael Badnarik (http://www.badnarik.org). We may have a similar interview with Independent candidate Ralph Nader in the near future. While we have not asked major party candidates Sen. John Kerry and Pres. George Bush for interviews, we will examine their drug policy records and relevant campaign platforms in the weeks to come.

The Libertarian Party (LP) has for years been a staunch advocate of ending drug prohibition, a plank to which it adheres to this day. In the party's current position statement on drug policy, it says bluntly, "Drugs should be legal. Individuals have the right to decide for themselves what to put in their bodies, so long as they take responsibility for their actions."

While the LP advocates drug legalization as part of a comprehensive and consistent anti-statist approach -- party planks also include ending welfare programs, protecting gun-owners' rights, opposing foreign wars and the war in Iraq in particular, opposing the Patriot Act and any other infringements on civil liberties and free speech, and opposing government regulations that interfere with free enterprise, such as minimum wages -- it has never caught hold with the voting public. In the last 20 years, the LP presidential candidate has never done better than second among the minority parties or important independents -- typically Nader and/or Greens on the progressive left or the Reform Party on the populist right have come in third, except in 1988, when Ron Paul (now a Republican congressman from Texas) beat out Lenora Fulani and the New Alliance Party. Except for businessman Harry Browne in 1996, no LP presidential candidate has since equaled Paul's showing with 0.5% of the popular vote. Browne, who ran again in 2000, saw his total decline to 0.36%.

Carrying the Libertarian Party banner in this year's election is Michael Badnarik, a computer consultant and constitutional scholar living in Austin, Texas. Badnarik was "turned off" from politics and pursuing his professional career until his study of the Constitution led him to the Libertarian Party, according to his biography. He ran for the Texas House of Representatives in 2000 and 2002 before successfully claiming the LP presidential nomination earlier this year. Badnarik answered DRCNet questions via e-mail as he flitted around the county campaigning this week.

Drug War Chronicle: The Libertarian Party has long stood tall against the "war on drugs." Are you continuing that stance?

Michael Badnarik: Absolutely. Libertarians have a number of good reasons to oppose the "war on drugs." The first, of course, is based in the notion of self-ownership. What you or I might choose to eat, drink, smoke, inject or otherwise ingest into our own bodies is none of the government's business. We own ourselves. The government doesn't own us.

Secondly, the "war on drugs," by any reasonable set of criteria, has been an abject failure. Any drug you care to name is just as available now -- perhaps even more available -- as it was when "war" was declared on it. Billions of dollars in government spending and millions of arrests and imprisonments have failed to achieve anything resembling "victory." And they'll continue to fail.

Finally, there are the unintended consequences and side effects. Drug war prisoners constitute a large minority, some say a majority, of the US prison population, and that prison population is the largest per capita in the world. The Bill of Rights -- in particular the 4th and 5th Amendments -- has been eviscerated. Law enforcement has bee corrupted. Lives have been ruined. Communities have been torn apart. There's just no upside to the drug war.

Chronicle: Clearly, drug abuse can be harmful. What do you say to people who argue that avoiding the harms of drug abuse justify drug prohibition?

Badnarik: We could argue all day about whether the "war on drugs" would be justified if it minimized drug abuse. The fact is that it doesn't. As a matter off fact, the evidence militates toward concluding that in encourages drug abuse. The "war on drugs" has encouraged a trend of ever more potent, dangerous drugs which are more addictive and more likely to engender an abusive response in their users. Marijuana is engineered for higher THC content. Opium evolves into morphine and then heroin. Coca leaves become powder cocaine, which becomes crack.

All of these changes are due to the imperative to maximize profit and to create drugs that give more "bang for the buck" in terms of being able to fit a given number of doses into a smaller space to facilitate smuggling. Then, when someone discovers that he or she has a drug problem, they're afraid to seek help. They've been deemed criminals. They're afraid of being arrested -- so they go on with their self-destructive behavior rather than risking it.

Chronicle: What do you see as the primary harms of the "war on drugs"?

Badnarik: I've listed a number of them above. To me, the basic, primary harm is that it gives government more power over the individual. The other harms are the side effects, intended and unintended, of that basic problem.

Chronicle: If we were to end drug prohibition, with what sort of drug control regime might we replace it?

Badnarik: The only sort of "control regime" I'm interested in is the market. Historically, government "control regimes" have produced inferior results to those achieved by letting the market meet demand and maximize benefits. As a matter of fact, government controls usually have an effect counter to the intended one, with numerous bad side effects.

Chronicle: The Libertarian Party's national office under Ron Crickenberger, who died last fall, was very strong on pushing for the end of the "war on drugs." Is the drug war still a major issue for the party? What is the national office doing?

Badnarik: The Libertarian Party adopted ending the drug war as a "signature issue" a couple of years ago. A lot of that was due to Ron's influence, which is very much missed. In this presidential election, foreign policy and civil liberties in a more general sense have taken center stage. However, neither I nor the LP in general have abandoned our goal of ending the drug war. If anything, it's more urgent than ever, precisely because the drug war facilitates the terrorism we now find ourselves at war with.

Chronicle: What are the outlines of the debate within the party over the centrality of the "war on drugs" to the party platform?

Badarik: It's been said that if you stick two Libertarians in a room and ask them a question, they'll emerge from the room with three conflicting and mutually exclusive points of view. That's as true of the drug issue as it is of any. However, I think that there are certain points on which we agree. We agree that the drug war is a failure. We agree that individuals should be free to make their own choices -- so long as they don't inflict the consequences of their mistakes on others.

Where we disagree sometimes is on the relative importance of the drug issue to others, and on the best approach for achieving our goals. Some Libertarians prefer to emphasize just marijuana, or just medical marijuana. Some Libertarians argue for a "control regime" like that currently in place for alcohol. Others want to tackle the whole subject, top to bottom, with a no-holds-barred, immediate battle for total victory over prohibition. And some Libertarians want to relegate the issue to a less prominent position in our platform, program, and public activities. These are all ongoing struggles within the Party. However, I believe that we're in general agreement on keeping the issue up front and continuing to do battle on it. And we're winning, as the progress of medical marijuana legislation, decriminalization legislation, etc., indicate.

Chronicle: The "war on drugs" is open to attack from across the political spectrum. Why is the Libertarian position superior to, say, the liberal critique of someone like George Soros or the public health-centered critique avowed by harm reductionists?

Badnarik: It really comes back to the libertarian critique of government in general, and to Lord Acton's dictum -- "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The liberal critique and the "harm reduction" critique still rely on government power. They assume that "the right people" or "the right policy" will remedy the situation. But once you hand power to government, you substantially lose control of how that power is exercised. Victories are temporary. Everything depends upon the whim of the politicians and how much influence can be exerted over them at any given time to go in any particular direction. Libertarians want to take the question out of the political arena entirely instead of trusting the transient wisdom and good intentions of bureaucrats and politicians to secure our rights.

Chronicle: Since Ed Clark got 920,000 votes and 1.1% of the popular vote in 1980, the LP presidential candidate has never received more than 0.5% of the popular vote (Paul in 1988 and Browne in 1996), and Harry Browne saw his vote totals decline from 1996 to 2000. Will you be able to break that ceiling and what are you doing that is different from earlier campaigns to enable you to do that?

Badnarik: I'm not even going to try to predict the outcome this November. Every election has certain unique features, and every election presents the LP with obstacles and with opportunities.

Will we bust the million-vote ceiling this time? I don't know. My gut feeling is that we will. Whatever the outcome, though, I know that I'll have earned every vote I get, that those votes will make a difference, and that the people who vote for me will never need to be ashamed for having done so.

How well we do this November depends upon a number of factors. However, I am confident that we can get our message out, affect the outcome of the election and achieve a greater degree of relevance for the Party than any previous campaign.

And, unlike previous campaigns, we're collecting hard data on what works and what doesn't instead of relying on anecdote and subjective perception. We're doing polls. We're coordinating those polls with our media buys so that we can gauge their effectiveness. This will be the best-documented presidential campaign in the LP's history -- and subsequent campaigns will be able to avoid making the same old mistakes over again.

-- END --
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Issue #355, 9/24/04 Editorial: The Moral Choice is Clear | With New Sentencing Legislation Pending in Congress, Church Leaders Urge an End to Mandatory Minimums | Patients, Doctors, Supporters Head to Washington to Demand Rescheduling of Marijuana as a Medicine | For Second Year, John W. Perry Fund Helps Students with Drug Convictions Afford College | DRCNet Interview: Michael Badnarik, Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate | DRCNet Book Review: "Patients in The Crossfire: Casualties in The War On Medical Marijuana," by Americans For Safe Access | Action Alert: Still Time to Contact Judiciary Committee Members About HEA Drug Provision | Newsbrief: Schwarzenegger Signs Syringe Access Bill, Vetoes NEP Bill | Newsbrief: Schwarzenegger Vetoes Bill Barring High School Drug Testing | Newsbrief: New Jersey Needle Exchange Bill on Fast Track, Passes First Hurdle | Newsbrief: Former Child Actor Macauley Culkin Busted for Drugs in All-Too-Typical Cave-In to Police Search Request | Newsbrief: Montel Williams Show Brings Medical Marijuana Issue to the Masses | Newsbrief: Bush Warns of Canada Drug Threat, Whistles Past Afghan Opium Fields | Newsbrief: Guatemala Seeks More Anti-Drug Money from United States | Newsbrief: Decades of Colombian Drug War Brings... New, More Efficient Drug Organizations | Newsbrief: Narc Hates Free Publicity | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: British Drug Policy Think Tank Says Government Abandoned Planned Heroin Maintenance Expansion | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar

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