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Post-election marijuana fight heats up

Advocates plan to build on public support for medical marijuana programs by mounting a campaign to discredit federal officials who have made opposition to any tolerance of marijuana — even for medical purposes — a cornerstone of national drug policy.

Regrouping after state initiatives to relax marijuana laws were defeated last month, some by crushing margins, advocates plan to build on public support for medical marijuana programs and have mounted an aggressive campaign to discredit federal officials who have made opposition to any tolerance of marijuana — even for medical purposes — a cornerstone of national drug policy.

Supporters managed to get initiatives that would loosen prohibitions or penalties on personal use of marijuana on the ballot in Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, South Dakota and the District of Columbia.

Among statewide measures, only an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the nation’s capital was approved, and it cannot go into effect without the approval of Congress, which rejected an earlier voter-approved measure. None of the losing measures was able to draw more than 43 percent support.

“I think we’ve learned that we have a substantial educational job to do, still,” said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which sponsored the Nevada initiative.

Going for the whole pot
Independent experts and advocates on both sides agreed that the initiatives failed because they were poorly worded and ran up against unusually effective opposition.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of policy studies at UCLA who researches drug policy, crime and health care, said advocates bit off more than they could chew, offering measures that went well beyond politically popular medical marijuana laws, which have drawn as much as 80 percent support in some polls.

In Nevada, for example, Question 9 would have fully legalized possession of as much as 3 ounces of marijuana. The Arizona initiative would have decriminalized possession into nothing more serious than a traffic violation, while the South Dakota initiative would have legalized hemp farms. The Ohio measure would have amended the state constitution to all but eliminate jail time for offenders.

Kleiman said the Nevada proposition in particular was “pretty easy to make fun of.” It would have legalized possession of up to 3 ounces, “or about 300 marijuana cigarettes,” Kleiman said. “That was easy to criticize.”

Drug czar wades in
Kleiman also credited initiative opponents with being better organized this year.

“The most dismal possibility, from the viewpoint of the marijuana advocates, is that supporters of current policies have finally gotten themselves organized and that from now on they will win every time,” he said, cautioning that “it’s too early to tell whether that’s right or not.”

Opposition was rallied by a series of hard-hitting ads the Office of National Drug Control Policy ran across the country in the weeks leading up to Election Day, bluntly equating the buying of illicit drugs with support for terrorists. Although the ads did not touch on any specific ballot proposals, initiative proponents said voters interpreted them as direct campaigning by the federal government to vote no.

John Walters, director of the drug policy office, also barnstormed the country in the final weeks giving speeches in states where statewide or local ballot measures were in play.

The Marijuana Policy Project filed a formal complaint with the Office of Special Counsel this week seeking Walters’ removal for allegedly violating federal regulations limiting government officials’ involvement in political campaigns. Critics also accused him of diverting federal money earmarked for drug treatment and addiction-prevention programs to the political effort.

“He 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,” Mirken said.

Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, which promotes decriminalization and sentencing reform, complained that Walters and other drug policy officials “are political campaign managers. This is not appropriate behavior.”

Thomas Riley, a spokesman for Walters, dismissed the complaints as “laughable” and “wacky” and cheerfully acknowledged that Walters urged Americans to oppose any attempt to relax restrictions on marijuana.

“Part of the description of the job from Congress ... is to oppose efforts to legalize drugs,” Riley said. “... It’s the Office of National Drug Control Policy.”

Riley said the initiatives failed last month because they were bad ideas. Voters did not want to encourage policies that would lead to “more addiction, more traffic fatalities ... more drugs available for young people,” he said.

Back to basics
Beginning with a conference in Anaheim, Calif., the weekend after Election Day, legal-marijuana organizations, which in the past have been fractious and difficult to unite, are working out how best to fight back. Two of the avenues they will pursue are clear: focusing on what the public has said it will accept, and demonizing the drug czar.

Mirken said the initiatives that failed last month were “considerably bolder than those initiatives which had passed [in the past], which were essentially straight medical marijuana initiatives.”

“The one in Arizona would have set up a state distribution system of free medical marijuana to patients. That was perhaps a bit much for people,” Mirken said. “And in Nevada, we were dealing with doing away with marijuana prohibition entirely and creating a state-regulated market.”

Experts said the larger legal-marijuana movement should build on its success selling the idea of medical marijuana to the public. Evidence suggests that marijuana may lessen the suffering of AIDS and cancer patients and people with arthritis, glaucoma and degenerative nerve disease, and Kleiman of UCLA said the government’s opposition was “a complete loser, in public opinion terms.”

Zeese said that on medical marijuana, “we have anywhere from 70 to 80 percent support nationwide, except maybe in the Deep, Deep South. Generally speaking, we have vast support on medical marijuana.”

Significant support could be won by highlighting the federal government’s aggressive assault on providers of medical marijuana in California. Even though the state has legalized such cultivation, the Justice Department has pre-empted state laws and prosecuted the practice under federal law, winning mandatory 10-year minimum prison terms for some defendants.

“Clearly, for both humane reasons and because practical progress is possible, we need to work on medical marijuana very seriously in the next year or two,” said Mirken, who said he and his allies could do a better job of raising the specter of federal agents “with automatic rifles rousting disabled women out of bed to take their medicine.”

“The Bush administration and the federal government is just absolutely out of step with the American public” on medical marijuana, he said.

Target: John Walters
Legalization advocates are also mounting a campaign to discredit Walters as a Republican partisan using his position to advance a hard-right agenda.

Walters, who was deputy to drug czar William Bennett during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush, has assumed a zero-tolerance stance against marijuana, saying it is harmful on its own and leads to use of harder drugs. Brandishing several years’ worth of scientific reports, activists strongly contest both contentions.

During the years he was out of government, Walters, a prominent conservative policy activist, made several pronouncements that have given his critics ammunition.

In 1996, Walters co-wrote a book with Bennett and John DiIulio, who until recently directed President Bush’s office to promote “faith-based” social programs. Titled “Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs,” the book argued that, among other factors, America’s drug epidemic could be traced to single-parent families, liberal school curriculums and weakening of religious faith.

Walters has also dismissed medical marijuana as “pseudo-science” and drug-treatment programs as “the latest manifestation of the liberals’ commitment to a therapeutic state in which the government serves as the agent of personal rehabilitation.”

‘Declaring war’ on drug czar
In a statement of its intentions, the Marijuana Policy Project publicized its filing against Walters with the Office Special Counsel by saying it was “declaring war on the drug czar for his illegal and dishonest activities.”

“I think attacking the drug czar’s office is an old strategy, not a new one,” Kleiman said, an observation that Gen. Barry McCaffrey, President Bill Clinton’s drug czar, would certainly echo. But the tone of the attacks against Walters turned distinctly toward the personal:

  • In an editorial this month, Reason magazine ridiculed Walters as living in a “sad little propaganda dreamworld.”
  • In an interview with Time magazine, John Sperling, the billionaire founder of the University of Phoenix, who has donated millions of dollars to legalization campaigns, called Walters “a pathetic drug-war soul who is defending a whole category of horrors he’s indifferent to.”
  • Mirken, the Marijuana Policy Project’s spokesman, denounced Walters as a “serial lawbreaker” and an “ideologue” with “no interest in facts or data.”
  • “He’s a John Bircher of the drug war,” Zeese said. “He’s an extremist.”

Riley, Walters’ spokesman, said some of the attacks were so outlandish that they could be described only as “goofy” and asked, “What kind of teenage fantasy world are people living in?”

“If you had a powerful disagreement with U.S. transportation policy or any other kind of policy issue, I don’t think that that’s a good way to get taken seriously,” Riley said. “That’s a way to fall into the caricature, I think, that a lot of people have of the drug legalizers.”

Kleiman, the UCLA researcher, also cautioned that a visceral personal campaign against Walters “seems unlikely to be a winner. ... It seems to me if you asked most voters whether the drug czar was against legalization, they’d probably say yes and wouldn’t think that was a horrible thing.”