The Election III: DRCNet Interview: Independent Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader 10/8/04

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As part of a package of articles this week covering drug policy in the presidential election campaign, we present an interview with Ralph Nader (, the controversial independent progressive candidate. (He has also won the nomination of the Reform Party, enabling him to get on the ballot in seven states.) Nader has a lengthy history as a consumer advocate, bursting onto the national scene with the 1963 publication of "Unsafe At Any Speed," a devastating account of safety problems with the Chevrolet Corvair. Since then, he has spawned numerous consumer advocacy organizations and authored numerous books, most recently "Crashing the Party," about the Green Party and electoral reform.

Nader also ran as the Green Party presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, garnering 1% of the popular vote in 1996 and 2.75% in the hotly disputed 2000 contest between Democratic Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. While the Greens did not offer Nader the nomination this year, his independent candidacy is consistently polling at between 1% and 2%, and he is on the ballot in at least 26 states at this writing, including some key battleground states.

Nader's candidacy is highly controversial among progressives, including a broad swathe of drug reformers, who fear that a vote for Nader is a vote for George Bush. We asked him about that; see below. This interview was conducted by e-mail over a period of weeks. We received final responses Monday.

Drug War Chronicle: In your issue statement on the war on drugs, you say "it is time to bring some illegal drugs within the law by regulating, taxing, and controlling them." Are you referring specifically to marijuana, or do you have other drugs in mind?

Ralph Nader: Marijuana is the drug that should most clearly be brought into a system of regulation and taxation. It is less dangerous than drugs like alcohol and tobacco as far as addiction and death. Regulation and taxation would provide greater control over purity, potency labeling, health warnings and age restrictions then the ineffective current 'war on marijuana' approach. In addition, experience with allowing retail sales of marijuana in Holland have shown effectiveness -- significantly less marijuana use in all age categories, especially by youth, twice as many US youth use marijuana on a per capita basis than Dutch youth.

Regarding other drugs, there has not been enough research done to show whether regulation and taxation approaches would work. Research being done in Switzerland on heroin assisted treatment -- where heroin users go to a government controlled clinic, purchase their heroin and use it at the clinic under the eyes of a health care worker -- show promise in that they have reduced crime, disease, death and dysfunction without increasing drug use, indeed leading to reduced drug use.

Chronicle: You have long been a critic of corporate power. How would you prevent a legal marijuana market from being dominated by large corporations? If you are talking about legalizing or regulating marijuana, how would that work?

Nader: We do not want the forbidden fruit enticement of marijuana's illegality to be replaced with glamorization by Madison Avenue advertising. Preventing national advertising that would create national brand name recognition would help keep large corporations out. This does not mean all advertising should be banned -- just national advertising to develop national brand recognition. Control of large corporations is a broader question that relates to this issue. The US needs to do more to control corporations through their corporate charters, taxation, and enforcement against corporate crime, fraud and abuse and the ending of corporate welfare.

Chronicle: What about medical marijuana?

Nader: The criminal prosecution of patients for medical marijuana must end immediately, and marijuana must be treated as a medicine for the seriously ill. The current cruel, unjust policy perpetuated and enforced by the Bush Administration prevents Americans who suffer from debilitating illnesses from experiencing the relief of medicinal cannabis.

While substantial scientific and anecdotal evidence exists to validate marijuana's usefulness in treating disease, a deluge of rhetoric from Washington claims that marijuana has no medicinal value. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 defines marijuana as a Schedule One narcotic, making it very difficult for American researchers to perform rigorous double-blind scientific studies on marijuana. Even without these difficulties, research has shown marijuana to be a safe and effective medicine for controlling nausea associated with cancer therapy, reducing the eye pressure for patients with glaucoma, and reducing muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, para- and quadriplegia.

Internationally, scientists are undertaking massive studies to determine the healing powers of cannabis. In August 2003 the esteemed British medical journal The Lancet reported that the world's largest study into the medical effects of cannabis have confirmed that the drug can reduce pain and improve the lives of people with multiple sclerosis. The three-year study was the first proper clinical appraisal of whether cannabis-derived drugs can help treat MS. Harvard medical doctor Lester Grinspoon has said he would have loved to do a similar study, but has been held back by the law. On his web site (, and in his book "The Forbidden Medicine," Grinspoon documents how marijuana relieves the pain of people enduring more than 110 different medical conditions -- like AIDS, Crohn's Disease, glaucoma, cancer, and many more. Marijuana helps increase appetite, reduce blood pressure and intraocular pressure.

Whenever given the chance, the American public has voted to allow seriously ill people to relieve their pain with marijuana. Despite well-funded opposition from the federal government, citizens in nine states have cast ballots to legalize the use of medicinal marijuana. No state has ever rejected such a voter initiative. Medical marijuana community health centers have opened up in the states, like California, only to be aggressively attacked and closed by federal law enforcement agents. Physicians must have the right to prescribe this drug to their patients without the fear of the federal government revoking their licenses, and doctor-patient privacy must be protected. The Drug Enforcement Administration should not be practicing medicine.

Chronicle: There are more than two million people behind bars in this country, about one-quarter of them prisoners of the war on drugs. In terms of broader criminal and social justice policies, what would you do to reduce this number? And what about the people who are already in prison?

Nader: Repeal mandatory sentencing and "three strikes and you're out laws" and return power to judges to sentence people as individuals within voluntary guidelines. Mandatory sentencing laws coincide with the rapid rise of people incarcerated since the mid-1980s. This is especially true for the rapid rise of incarceration of African Americans. Handling substance abuse as a health problem more than as a law enforcement issue will slow the expansion of the number of drug offenders arrested and incarcerated. Regarding people already in prison, first, reforms in sentencing should be made retroactive. It is an injustice to say these laws are not fair, but then keep people incarcerated based on those unfair laws. Second, many people -- indeed hundreds of thousands -- are being released annually. Government, rather than providing assistance to these people to help them make the most of their lives, has put roadblocks in front of them. We need to remove the roadblocks, and make it easier for people to get a good education and a good job. Along with this we need to encourage them to rejoin the community as full citizens by restoring their right to vote.

Chronicle: Your issue statement on reforming the criminal justice system says you want to replace the war on drugs with "a health-based, treatment and prevention focused approach." Now, much drug treatment is coerced; people are given a choice between treatment and prison. Should ordering someone into drug treatment be a function of the criminal justice system?

Nader: The best drug treatment is treatment that the user chooses. It is a lot less expensive, and less damaging to the individual, to make drug treatment as available as any other health service then it is to have the government arrest, prosecute, incarcerate and then force someone into treatment. So, the first choice is to make treatment as easily available as possible. That means making it affordable and user-friendly, i.e. located in neighborhoods where people can access it, and have treatment available to treat individual needs. (For example, many drug addicted women have been victims of sexual or spousal abuse -- this needs to be incorporated into drug treatment.) Treatment also needs to include programs that reduce the harm from drug abuse, e.g. preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS through needle exchange programs. And, we need to recognize that the most effective barometer of whether someone is going to succeed in drug treatment is whether they have a job. Thus, the US needs to be creating jobs that can give people hope and opportunity in life. While there are problems with coerced treatment, it is better to give people a choice of treatment instead of incarceration as done in many of the better drug court programs currently in existence and as has been passed by voters in California and other states.

Chronicle: Should drug treatment be available on demand? If so, how do you pay for it?

Nader: On our web site we have a detailed plan for making health care available to all Americans -- this should include substance abuse treatment and prevention. The Nader campaign supports a single-payer health care plan that replaces for-profit, investor-owned health care and removes the private health insurance industry (full Medicare for all). A major problem with our health care system is that we spend an inordinate amount of money on unnecessary bureaucracy and duplicative overhead caused primarily by our reliance on the private health insurance industry. Indeed, 25% of every dollar spent on health care in the US goes to duplicative and unnecessary overhead. The United States spends far more on health care than any other country in the world on a per capita basis, but ranks only 37th in the overall quality of health care it provides, according to the World Health Organization. The US is the only industrialized country that does not provide universal health care. Forty-five million Americans have no health insurance, and tens of millions more are underinsured. Providing universal health care can only be accomplished through a single-payer system: no country ever achieved universal coverage with private health insurance. President Harry Truman proposed universal health care in 1948 but was rebuffed by Congress. The time to act is yesterday. Let us end our disastrous descent into the corporatization of medicine and its callous consequences.

Chronicle: Is the drug war, and more broadly, the criminal justice system, racist?

Nader: The drug war and criminal injustice system certainly have a racially unfair impact. The facts on this are evident, according to federal surveys, "most current illicit drug users are white. There were an estimated 9.9 million whites (72 percent of all users), 2.0 million blacks (15 percent), and 1.4 million Hispanics (10 percent) who were current illicit drug users in 1998." Despite these facts, African Americans constitute 36.8% of those arrested for drug violations, over 42% of those in federal prisons for drug violations. African-Americans comprise almost 58% of those in state prisons for drug felonies; Hispanics account for 20.7%. From racial profiling to discretionary decisions of prosecutors and judges, African Americans and Latinos are treated more harshly than European-Americans.

Chronicle: Your issue statements on criminal justice and the war on drugs illustrate some of the harm done by the drug war. The evidence of the damage is irrefutable, yet little changes. Why is reforming our drug policies such an intractable issue?

Nader: Change is always difficult. Their are entrenched interests that profit from the current system -- within the government , e.g., the drug enforcement bureaucracy, and outside the government, e.g. profit-making corporate prisons or the drug treatment industry that relies on court-ordered clients. In addition, many politicians who have supported the war on drugs have a hard time publicly admitting they were wrong. They have no standard of failure so as to change course. Yet, progress is being made. States are voting for medical marijuana and treatment instead of prison. The public seems to see the failure of the drug war, now it is time for politicians who refuse to see it to be replaced by elected officials ready to end the expensive and failed drug war.

Chronicle: Your agricultural policy issue statement does not mention hemp. What's up with that?

Nader: At we have a strong position supporting industrial hemp. The Nader-Camejo Campaign supports industrial hemp as a renewable resource with many important fuel, fiber, food, paper, energy and other uses. Industrial hemp is a commercial crop grown for its seed and fiber and the products made from them such as oil, seed cake, and hurds (stalk cores). Industrial hemp is one of the longest and strongest fibers in the plant kingdom, and it has had thousands of uses over the centuries. In need of alternative crops and aware of the growing market for industrial hemp -- particularly for bio-composite products such as automobile parts, farmers in the United States are forced to watch from the sidelines while Canadian, French and Chinese farmers grow the crop and American manufacturers import it from them. Federal legislators, meanwhile, continue to ignore the issue of removing it from the DEA list. It is time to allow hemp agriculture, production and manufacturing in the United States.

Chronicle: Drug reform ranks include supporters from across the political spectrum. Most will consider your drug policy positions very favorably, but many of those who are aligned with the political left will oppose your candidacy nevertheless, because they fear splitting the vote and handing the election to George Bush. Do you think they're wrong, and if so, why?

Nader: The only wasted vote is a vote for a candidate you don't believe in. George Bush and John Kerry have strong pro-drug war records. George Bush and John Ashcroft have a terrible record on all the issues discussed in this survey and have been aggressive in their prosecution of drug offenders including medical marijuana in states like California where the voters have voted to support medical marijuana. But, the Clinton administration was not much better, even on medical marijuana they took steps to enforce the marijuana laws and close community-based medical marijuana clinics sanctioned by local governments. Senator John Kerry is a former prosecutor who was one of the lead sponsors of Plan Colombia and has supported crime bills that have led to the mess of our criminal injustice system and the high levels of incarceration. People who oppose the drug war are showing little respect for themselves if they vote for candidates who want to incarcerate them, their friends or their family for addictions; or who support a policy as damaging as the war on drugs. As your question notes "fear" is behind voting against your interest for the lesser evil. When you operate out of fear you are likely to make mistakes. People need to put aside fear and vote for the greater good, not the lesser evil.

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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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