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Drug Reformers Are Regrouping

Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Author: Alan W. Bock, Senior Editorial Writer for The Register
Published: November 17, 2002
Copyright: 2002 The Orange County Register
Contact: [email protected]

The post-election e-mails and faxes from the Drug Policy Alliance tried to put as cheerful a face on it as possible, noting in a subhead that since 1996 voters have approved 19 of 24 state drug-policy reform initiatives. But releases before the election had crowed that voters had placed themselves on the reform side 17 of 19 times. The reformers lost three and won two on Nov. 5, and the ones they lost were more prominent and potentially more important.

The midterm election this year, then, was a significant setback for a drug reform movement that had been riding fairly high with shrewdly selected issues centered around medical marijuana patients and the idea of treatment rather than incarceration for non-violent offenders.

Time Magazine’s cover story for Nov. 11 (released before the election) highlighted this success and predicted more, noting that 80 percent of Americans support making marijuana available medicinally and 72 percent prefer fines rather than jail for marijuana possession. Although it included more than its fair share of bad puns and “clever” winks to hippieness (a trivializing temptation no journalist seems able to resist), the Time article included a fairly accurate assessment of the relatively small health risks associated with smoking cannabis and acknowledged (as government spokesmen almost never do) that there is solid evidence for some medical benefits.

But the voters spoiled the story, rejecting a measure in Ohio that would have provided treatment rather than incarceration for simple possession offenders (similar to Prop. 36, which California voters passed and which is working fairly well), and measures that would have effectively legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for any purpose in Nevada and Arizona.

It wasn’t a clean sweep for the drug warriors. Voters in Washington, D.C., approved a measure to require treatment instead of jail with a 78 percent majority – but Congress, which runs the district, probably won’t allow it to go into effect. In Massachusetts, 13 of 19 local nonbinding resolutions instructing legislators to vote for making marijuana possession a civil rather than criminal offense passed.

In San Francisco voters approved a measure directing city officials to look into having the city grow and distribute cannabis to patients who qualify for it.

On balance, however, the election results were a setback for drug reformers.

Consequently I was especially interested to attend a national conference of the Marijuana Policy Project and Students for Sensible Drug Policies held last weekend at the Anaheim Hilton. The pre-publicity suggested it would be something of a triumphal affair, celebrating Tuesday’s victories and planning the next steps. It turned out to be more sober and sobering: a reassessment of where the movement stands.

When I talked to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which gets about a third of its funding from billionaire currency speculator George Soros, the preceding Friday, he was feeling fairly down-in-the-dumps. It wasn’t just the election results but a funding crisis that had come up that week, he said.

Ethan confessed that he didn’t know where to go from here. Should the movement return to a narrow focus on medical marijuana? Should it withdraw from the political arena for a while and focus on educational activities? Should it concentrate on court cases? He said he just didn’t know.

By Sunday, however, when he gave the featured luncheon address, he was considerably more upbeat. He still didn’t know what the next steps would be, he said, but he felt confident the drug reform movement would be up to taking them. Still, he challenged those in the audience to be more realistic, more willing to empathize with people who are uneasy about reform, more open to forming coalitions, more determined to do the hard and sometimes thankless work of persuasion and organizing.

“You can’t educate your parents unless you can put yourselves in their shoes,” he told the students in the audience, “and understand the fears of so many American parents, who have the occasional desire to put their budding adolescents in a cocoon for a few years to protect them from all the perils out there. Parents know they have to let go and let their kids grow up and face their own problems, but they don’t want to see them get hurt or become zombies.”

Drug reformers tend to be either leftists, who see drug law reform as a social justice issue, or libertarians, who see it as a freedom issue, Nadelmann noted. Unless they are willing to work with others who don’t necessarily share all their values, to compromise on strategy and tactics, to reach out to those who are decent but skeptical, they will not win.

He placed the American flag on the podium, led the audience in the pledge of allegiance, and urged drug reformers to “embrace our Americanism” and communicate to others that those who criticize the drug war are in tune with the hope of the founders that this would be a country “with liberty and justice for all.” 

What moved Ethan Nadelmann toward more optimistic determination? I think it was seeing a comprehensive program that stressed bringing others in, working with churches, unions and professional associations, and keeping the message non-hysterical and grounded in solid science.

Two doctors presented their latest findings on the usefulness of medical marijuana, and a panel of doctors vowed to be more active within the medical community. Sessions were devoted to communicating with the media and dissecting government propaganda. A new group, Americans for Safe Access, synopsized its comprehensive training program for medical marijuana patients and activists. A panel of conservatives, including Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, explained how to promote alliances across ideological lines.

I talked to Rob Kampia, president of the Marijuana Policy Project, about why the initiatives in Ohio, Nevada and Arizona had failed. He noted the extraordinary activism of “drug czar” John Walters in all three states, which probably included the illegal use of taxpayer funds in political campaigns (independent journalist Dan Forbes did a fairly comprehensive article for AlterNet and featured numerous distortions, but said that probably wasn’t the deciding factor.

In Ohio, the attorney general, who writes the ballot summaries, included dismissal of charges but didn’t mention drug treatment, skewing the perception of a measure virtually identical to California’s Prop. 36.

Kampia acknowledged that decriminalizing possession of up to three ounces of marijuana (Nevada) and virtual decriminalization (Arizona) were probably premature – though he noted that 39 percent in Nevada and 43 percent in Arizona voted “yes,” which are high-water marks for outright decriminalization, more than support it in most polls. He noted that Republicans had an especially effective get-out-the-vote effort in Nevada this year, and Republicans tend to oppose drug-law reform by about a two-to-one margin. So where does the reform movement stand now? Chastened but very much alive.

The Ninth Circuit federal appeals court on Oct. 29 sustained an injunction forbidding the federal government from revoking the controlled-substances license or even investigating California doctors who recommend marijuana to their patients. The Ninth Circuit does get reversed more often than other circuits, but this Supreme Court has been solicitous of First Amendment rights, on which this ruling was based. The concurring opinion by Judge Alex Kozinski, stressing the legitimate interests of seriously ill patients and of states seeking to innovate within a federalist system, was especially powerful. It should probably be reprinted and distributed widely.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has raided numerous medical marijuana cooperatives in California and effectively shut them down, apparently focusing on those that have tried to operate in as above-board and “clean” a fashion as possible, e.g., Santa Cruz, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego. That has been discouraging, but it has also provoked a negative response. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer sent a sharply worded letter to DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson after the Santa Cruz raid, and a Sept. 23 rally in Sacramento drew a large crowd and symbolic civil disobedience.

While these raids have been debilitating, several – Santa Cruz, Los Angeles – have not been followed by formal charges being filed. It may be that the feds doubt whether they can get a California jury to convict on medical marijuana charges – and since federal judges fairly often don’t allow testimony about medical use or illness to be introduced at trial, any Californian called to a jury on any federal marijuana case might be well-advised to assume it’s a medical marijuana case and vote to acquit. In San Diego, the preliminary phases of Steve McWilliams’ case will begin in December. Steve has good legal representation and feels confident.

In Oakland, Ed Rosenthal – not affiliated with the Oakland cooperative but accused of growing for San Francisco clubs – has assembled a good legal team and isn’t planning on jail. Both cases should get extensive local news coverage and stimulate discussion.

Lynn and Judy Osburn in Ventura County are in worse shape and Orange County’s Marvin Chavez is back in state prison. The battle in the courts is a mixed affair, and a number of medical marijuana activists will be forced to pay dearly for their convictions and compassion.

But drug-law reformers, while somewhat bloodied, are not going away. Ethan Nadelmann hopes they will be able to persuade Democrats, in the process of reassessing their priorities and licking their wounds, to embrace this cause. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But it won’t be for lack of effort by reformers.

Alan Bock is author of “Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana,” Seven Locks Press 2001

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