Image: Drug czar John Walters
Drug czar John Walters has argued forcefully that any use of marijuana can lead to abuse of harder drugs.
By Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com

Activists fighting to relax marijuana laws called for national drug czar John Walters’ ouster Wednesday for what they said were his “illegal and dishonest activities” in allegedly using taxpayer money to campaign against legal-marijuana initiatives last month.

Stung by big defeats at the polls in several states on Election Day, legal-marijuana groups signaled Wednesday that they were shifting tactics to directly take on Walters, who has made zero tolerance for any use of marijuana — even for medical purposes — a cornerstone of federal drug policy.

The Marijuana Policy Project filed a formal complaint with the Office of Special Counsel accusing Walters of violating the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that bars government employees from many election activities.

The filing alleged that in a series of speeches and other appearances, Walters explicitly campaigned against Question 9, a voter initiative in Nevada that would have legalized possession of as much as 3 ounces of marijuana for personal use.

The Nevada initiative failed, drawing only 39 percent support. Marijuana-related initiatives in South Dakota, Ohio and Arizona also failed by similar margins. Walters made a series of appearances in those states before Election Day to denounce any movement to ease legal restrictions on possession and use of marijuana and other drugs.

The complaint, announced Wednesday in Washington, D.C., was accompanied by a letter that the Marijuana Policy Project, which sponsored Question 9, sent to the Nevada secretary of state’s office accusing Walters of also violating state law by failing to report his activities as campaign contributions.

Walters public comments cited
In its filing with the Office of Special Counsel, the Marijuana Policy Project noted numerous examples of Walters’ speaking out in general against drugs in Nevada in the weeks leading up to Election Day. It also cited a Las Vegas Review-Journal article that quoted Walters at one appearance as specifically promising opponents of Question 9 that “we will stand with you.”

Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in an interview that Walters “broke the law by using the authority of his office to conduct a political campaign, and it was absolutely a campaign of lies and distortions designed to frighten people.”

The group’s action would appear to have little chance to succeed, however. The Hatch Act specifically exempts Cabinet officials, like Walters, and others who are subject to Senate confirmation from its provisions.

Noting the exemption for Cabinet members, Thomas Riley, a spokesman for Walters, said Walters was “going to talk about drug legalization whether there’s a ballot initiative or not. Even if that was campaigning, he’s allowed to.”

Even so, Riley disputed activists’ contention that Walters targeted specific ballot questions in his appearances before last month, saying part of Walters’ job was “to oppose efforts to legalize drugs.”

“The idea that he should say, ‘Well, I’m not going to go to this particular state because ... gosh, they have a ballot initiative this fall’ ... is ridiculous,” Riley said in an interview. “It’s the Office of National Drug Control Policy. It’s on its face silly. He was just doing his regular job.”

New strategy for movement
The filing seems geared more toward shifting the focus of the legal-marijuana movement away from the ballot defeats last month toward activists’ campaign to depict Walters as a right-wing ideologue who is failing at his job, which Mirken said “is to explore drug policies that work rather than breaking the law to defend a bankrupt and failed system.”

Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, an advocacy group that has been heavily involved in efforts to promote medical use of marijuana, acknowledged that as a lawyer, he was “not that confident about the legal issues.”

“I think they’re raising important issues,” Zeese said. “Whether or not they’re going to be able to pass a legal test is a separate issue, and if I had to guess, I’d guess that they’re going to lose. But I’m glad they’re raising the issue, because something needs to be done to draw the public’s attention to the issue that their tax dollars are being spent.”

Mirken defended the sometimes-bitter tone his organization adopted in announcing Wednesday’s filing. Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said the legal-marijuana movement was “declaring war on the drug czar,” and while Mirken said he was uncomfortable with that kind of rhetoric, it was justified by the government’s depiction of its own activities as a “war on drugs.”

“Well, he started it,” Mirken said of Walters, who he said had backed legal-marijuana activists into a corner with his aggressive opposition. “... At a certain point, you have to say enough is enough.”

“We were handed a situation not of our choosing,” Mirken said. “We will make the best of it as an opportunity to educate the public about why Mr. Walters is wrong, about why the things that he was saying were untrue, sometimes flagrantly so, and make the best of the situation that we can.”

© 2002 MSNBC Interactive

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