The Election II: Drug Reformers on Kerry and Bush, Nader and Badnarik 10/8/04

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The presidential election is now less than a month away. With the US waging hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the threat of terrorist attacks looming over everything, few issues other than war and terror are getting any play at all. The state of the economy and concerns about the health care system appear to be the primary domestic issues, while drug policy is not even on the radar. The major party candidates have not broached the topic on their own and their challengers on the left and the right who do articulate radically sensible drug policies struggle to be heard.

While many argue that the drug reform community skews toward the progressive side of the political spectrum, it is by no means monolithic. In addition to social justice-minded progressives, who presumably are mostly supporting Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry, the movement also contains a healthy measure of libertarians, many though not all of whose natural sympathies lie closer to incumbent President George W. Bush.

As usual, the drug reform community faces the questions: Do you support the candidate who best represents your views as a reformer -- presumably Libertarian Michael Badnarik or independent Ralph Nader -- despite knowing neither has a chance of winning? Or are the differences between Bush and Kerry on drug policy sufficient to support one of them instead?

This week, DRCNet spoke with a variety of drug reform advocates about drug policy and the presidential campaign. Bear in mind that many of them are constrained by their nonprofit tax status from endorsing a political candidate. Most saw no sign that either Bush or Kerry would break with drug war orthodoxy, but most also saw little reason to vote for third party candidates. Interestingly, the degree of difference people saw between Kerry and Bush on drug policy generally appeared to correlate with their positions on the ideological spectrum.

"There is not much difference between Bush and Kerry that I'm aware of," said David Boaz, executive vice-president of the libertarian Cato Institute ( "As far as I know, both candidates support drug laws as they are. I certainly haven't heard Kerry criticizing the administration on it."

"There is absolutely no difference between them," concurred Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of Reason magazine and a self-described small-L libertarian. "Kerry has always been a drug hawk," he said, pointing to Kerry's choice of former Assistant Secretary of State Rand Beers, a key architect of Plan Columbia, as an example. "Which is not to say that Bush is good. With both Democrats and Republicans, there is a real commitment to keeping control of all aspects of drug policy at the federal level. That's why under both Janet Reno and John Ashcroft you had the Dept. of Justice attacking legal medical marijuana in California and elsewhere."

But Janet Reno only sicced the Justice Department's civil division on the medical marijuana movement, while John Ashcroft unleashed a campaign of criminal investigations and arrests, pointed out Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML ( That racheting-up of repression has been typical of the Bush administration's approach, he said. "This is the first time in many years that I can see a discernible difference between the major party candidates regarding marijuana and drug policy," said Gieringer. "Clinton was terrible on drug policy, and Gore never repudiated that. In 2000, Bush made encouraging comments about states' rights and marijuana, but once in office, Bush's record has been as bad as any we've seen. When John Ashcroft raided and closed the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center two weeks after 9/11, I knew this administration was a worse threat to our welfare and safety than Saddam Hussein would ever be. From a drug reform perspective, we could not do worse than Bush," he told DRCNet.

"We've seen what the Bush administration considers compassion toward medical marijuana," agreed Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access (, the California-based medical marijuana defense group. Sherer said that during ASA's conversations with the Kerry campaign, the group had extracted a promise to put a moratorium on raids. "All we can do is see if he lives up to his promise," she said.

The Drug Policy Alliance ( has been reaching out to both parties on drug reform, but DPA's Bill Piper also saw clear differences between Bush and Kerry. "Look at mandatory minimum sentences, medical marijuana, and needle exchange," said Piper. "Kerry has actually voted against mandatory minimums and he has supported greater access to sterile syringes. The Senate hasn't dealt with medical marijuana, but Kerry did sign a letter along with Sen. Kennedy urging the DEA to allow medical marijuana research to go forward at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst."

But Kerry's record isn't all sweetness and light, Piper added. "He has a history of talking tough on drugs and crime, and he has been totally supportive of the Latin American drug war. He's been awful on a host of civil liberties issues, but on his voting record and his rhetoric, on drug policy he is clearly better than Bush. How he will govern as president, however, remains to be seen."

But even a do-nothing Kerry would be better than Bush, Piper suggested. "Even if Kerry turns out like Bill Clinton, who did nothing of substance on drug policy, the fact that he would not be actively working against us would be helpful. It is hard to imagine that Kerry would appoint such ardent drug warriors and ideologues like John Ashcroft and John Walters."

For Keith Stroup, the soon-to-retire long-time head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (, the differences between Bush and Kerry are clear and stark. "Without question, as you can see from the information we have on our web site, it is clear that Bush is the ultimate drug warrior," Stroup argued. "Kerry, on the other hand, has a relatively soft position. He talks about how when he was a prosecutor they would exercise discretion and not prosecute simple marijuana possession cases. I wish he would clearly say he supported medical marijuana, but marijuana smokers will be in much better shape under a Kerry presidency," said Stroup.

"Nobody is talking about drug policy so far, and I don't expect it to happen, but Kerry's record does have a few bright spots," said Gieringer. "He has voted against mandatory minimum sentences, he has voted against the death penalty for 'drug kingpins.' I spoke with him, and the one thing he said without any prompting is that there are far too many people in prison for drug offenses and that mandatory minimums have to go. He doesn't say that on the hustings, though."

For all the nuanced discussion about drug policy differences between Bush and Kerry, everyone DRCNet spoke with agreed that neither breaks with the prohibitionist paradigm. But candidates who are very strong on drug policy, meaning Libertarian Michael Badnarik and independent Ralph Nader aren't getting much respect in an election that many are calling critical for the nation's future.

"Realistically, the next president will be either Bush or Kerry," said Cato's Boaz. "If you are a single issue voter, you probably want to try to determine which of the majors is less bad on this issue. It would be good if the media paid more attention to minor candidates, but as long as election laws are set up to sustain the two party system, the media correctly understand that third parties face an insuperable barrier," he argued.

"If you're looking to be a purist," said NORML's Stroup, "Ralph Nader is very clear and good on drug policy, but the problem is that he is just not a serious candidate." Reflecting the anybody-but-Bush attitude rampant in broad swathes of the American polity, Stroup warned that "the impact of voting for Nader may allow Bush to win. If I were just voting on the best marijuana position, it would be either Nader or the Libertarians. But because of the importance of this election and because I think Kerry's position is as supportive as we can expect from a major party candidate, I suspect I will be voting for John Kerry."

"The Libertarians, the Greens, and Ralph Nader are all better on all of our issues than either Kerry or Bush," said DPA's Piper. "If they were elected president they probably would follow through on their campaign promises. But they aren't going to win." Still, he argued, minor candidates are worthy of consideration. "The more votes they get, the more helpful for drug policy reform, because they send a message to the major parties."

While both Nader and Libertarian nominee Badnarik have strong drug policy platforms, drug reform voters determined to cast a protest vote should note the differences between them, said Reason editor Gillespie. "There are significant differences between their general drug policies," he pointed out. "Badnarik is very much for legalization, while Nader is much more interested in medicalizing drug use. While Nader's position is better than what we have, it's not as good as Badnarik's. If you are going to vote based on the drug issue and you believe human beings have the right to control their own bodies and ingest what they wish, Badnarik is your candidate."

-- END --
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Issue #357, 10/8/04 Editorial: A Tragedy in the Capital | Medical Marijuana Activists Besiege HHS, Demand Rescheduling | Drug Policy and the Presidential Election -- Introduction | The Election I: Bush and Kerry on Drugs: Past Records and Platform Planks | The Election II: Drug Reformers on Kerry and Bush, Nader and Badnarik | The Election III: DRCNet Interview: Independent Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader | The Election IV: DRCNet Interview: Michael Badnarik, Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate (repeat) | Newsbrief: Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Critical Federal Sentencing Cases | Newsbrief: Needle Exchange Bill Passes New Jersey Assembly | Newsbrief: Protests Rise over Award as Thai Prime Minister Prepares for New Round of Drug War | Newsbrief: Bolivia's Chapare Cocaleros Sign Historic Agreement with Government | Newsbrief: DEA Pulls Prescription Pain Medicine FAQs Without Explanation | Newsbrief: Hemp Crops in Western Australia Stymied By Licensing Requirements | Newsbrief: Atlanta Cops Use Forfeited Funds to Buy Bigger Guns | Newsbrief: No Asset Forfeiture for Misdemeanor Drug Charges, Tennessee Says | Newsbrief: Texas DA Says Doctors Must Turn In Drug-Using Pregnant Women | Newsbrief: Another Killer Cop Walks Free | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | This Week in History | Administrative Assistant: Part-Time Job Opportunity at DRCNet | The Reformer's Calendar

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