The Texas League of Women Voters has become the latest state chapter of the venerable civic action organization to adopt a position on drug law reform. At the end of a year-long process jump-started by drug reformers within the Texas LWV, the state group adopted the proposals in January, but did not reveal them until this month.
According to the consensus position adopted in January, "the League of Women Voters of Texas considers substance abuse and drug addiction public health issues." Texas LWV specifically endorsed preventative education programs to keep kids from starting to use drugs and public education programs directed at adults, as well as needle exchange programs to reduce the incidence of blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
The Texas LWV also endorsed medical marijuana. Its position on the issue is: "Laws regarding drug abuse and drug addiction should include no criminal penalties for cannabis (marihuana) possession when recommended by a physician."
In the 1960s, radical activists who hoped to remake American society spoke of the need for a "long march through the institutions" in order to spread their position throughout society. Drug reformers of today face a similar problem: bringing not only the political system but the organizations that influence it on board with remaking the nation's drug laws. Thus, reformers have attempted to influence party platforms, get professional groups like doctors' and lawyers' associations to adopt positions, persuade unions and other and civic groups to come around, and otherwise bore their way into the heart of socially and politically influential organizations.
The League of Women Voters is one of those influential groups. Founded in 1920, the highly-respected nonpartisan civic organization has chapters in all 50 states. According to its web site, the LWV fights "to improve our systems of government and impact public policies through citizen education and advocacy," and it does so through a decentralized, grassroots organization that makes it ideally suited for allowing members to percolate new ideas up through the local chapters to the state and national level.
The Texas League didn't suddenly wake up one day and decide to study drug policy. Instead, it required individual League members to make it happen. "Noelle Davis from the Austin chapter and I got the state convention to adopt a study," said Suzanne Wills of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas and the Ft. Worth chapter of the LWV. "That's the way the League does things. We decide to study the issue, then all the leagues in the area, whether it's local or state or national, are supposed to participate in the study and come to a consensus. If we can't come to consensus on a particular issue, like, for instance, reducing the penalties for adult marijuana possession, we don't adopt a position on that issue."
Sometimes, League chapters or members have to take a more roundabout path to getting an issue studied, said Wills. "With drug policy, the Austin League requested a statewide study of the issue, but the state board didn't recommend it, so Noelle and I had to do some lobbying at the convention, and we managed to get two-thirds of the delegates to adopt it," she said. "That's not how it's typically done, but that's how we got it done."
The League did not adopt consensus positions on some of the more vanguard issues, but drug reformers in the League pronounced themselves satisfied -- for now. "I'm very pleased with the outcome of the study because these are issues that the League can start to advocate for now," said Noelle Davis, who also heads Texans for Medical Marijuana. "These are issues that the legislature is already dealing with, and the League will add a new voice in advocating for these issues."
It would have been preferable to arrive at a stronger drug reform statement, said Davis, but that can come down the road. "In time, more members of the League will be comfortable with broader reforms, but I'm very happy that they came to a consensus on education, medical marijuana, and needle exchange," she said.
What a Texas LWV consensus on certain drug policy issues means in the world of real politics is clout. "The League can now advocate on these issues at the statewide and local level," said Davis. That does not, however, mean the Texas LWV will decide that is the best use of its limited resources. "The League has positions on many issues," Davis said. "The state advocacy chair and advocacy committee will have to decide if drug policy reform is one they want to lobby on."
It's not just Texas. In Seattle, the local League, working with reformers around the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project, is playing a key role in pushing the drug reform agenda forward. And according to a survey of state Leagues conducted by Wills, Leagues in at least 13 other states and a handful of localities have reached consensus positions on one or more drug policy issues.
Arkansas is one of the states where the League has acted on drug policy, and again, a drug policy reformer who is also a League member played a key role. "The League here had done a study of sentencing issues several years ago," said Denele Campbell, director of the Arkansas Alliance for Medical Marijuana and a member of the Washington County (Fayetteville) League. "That study recommended that medicinal marijuana use not be a crime resulting in a jail sentence, but when I asked whether that consensus could be used to support political action on the issue, the county leadership thought it needed to go forward as a statewide study on its own. So we did."
Now, the Arkansas LWV is on record supporting medical marijuana -- as well as supporting decriminalization of marijuana, the use of drug courts, and good drug prevention education. It is also on record opposing mandatory minimum sentences and prison sentences for drug possession offenses.
"This is important," said Campbell. "The League has an excellent reputation for nonpartisan, thorough investigation of the issues, and it has the credibility that a single interest group can't necessarily bring to an issue. Once the League reaches a consensus on an issue, it backs it up with press releases and even lobbying, depending on what other issues are on its agenda and how fervently it cares about your issue. Anyone who is interested in making his or her community a better place should view the League as a good vehicle for doing all sorts of things."
In Texas, Wills and Davis are waiting to see whether the state League will use some of its organizational resources to advance the drug policy consensus reached by local chapters. "The League has limited resources, so just because it adopts a position doesn't mean it will lobby for it," said Wills. "What we'll do is try to get medical marijuana or needle exchange bills before the legislature again, and then try to get the League lobbyist to work on it."