Drug Policy

Weeding out the Demos

Comparing the candidates’ positions on marijuana

By Steven Wishnia

The Bush junta’s record on pot is abysmal. Some people hoped that as a Republican recovering alcoholic and cokehead, George W. might pull a “Nixon goes to China” on drug policy, but his performance in office has been more like Nixon bombing hospitals in Vietnam. From the crackdowns on medical marijuana and glass pipes to the threats to Canada if it decriminalizes pot, he’s made cultural war on cannabis the center of his drug policy.

So what are the alternatives? Well, as it’s unlikely that the United States will elect a Green or a Libertarian in 2004, that leaves the Democrats. Which isn’t much.

Except for Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, none of the candidates’ campaigns returned phone calls. Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, who has met with several of the candidates, says all were willing to support a minimal agenda of lowering mandatory-minimum sentences, reducing the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine, and “paying lip service” to treatment instead of prisons.

But so far, there are no Gary Johnsons running. While Congress’ most rabid drug warriors are mainly Republicans, Democrats often want to appear compassionate without risking being seen as “soft on drugs.”

Some activists are optimistic. “How does the Democratic Party define itself as different from the Republicans?” asks John Hartman of the Ohio Cannabis Society. “This is one issue where they could.” Ben Gaines of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy says that depends on “if we can get the candidates to understand that it’s beneficial for them to talk at least about medical marijuana.”

But, observes Nadelmann, despite the 70 percent to 80 percent support for medical marijuana in polls, the cannabis constituency hasn’t organized to the point where politicians have to pay attention to it. Here’s how the current presidential hopefuls roll up.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio)

Kucinich, a relative longshot, has taken the strongest stance of any Democrat in the race so far. He told reporters in May that medical marijuana should be available “to any patient who needs it to alleviate pain and suffering.” He is not a co-sponsor of Rep. Barney Frank’s bill to let states legalize medical marijuana but has signed on to a measure that would allow defendants in federal pot trials to claim medical use.

The former Cleveland mayor, who is campaigning as an antiwar, working-class liberal–he advocates a Cabinet Department of Peace and a government-run universal healthcare system–is a recent convert to drug-law reform; in 1998, he voted for a House resolution condemning medical-marijuana initiatives. “Dennis didn’t come out of the closet until recently,” says John Hartman.

Still, says Nadelmann, “Kucinich is the one who’s jumping out.” He’s worked to repeal the Higher Education Act’s ban on student loans for convicted pot smokers, and his campaign website declares that the war on drugs “produces many casualties, but benefits only the prison-industrial complex.”

“We’re still developing our policy on the drug war,” says a Kucinich campaign spokesperson, “but we are looking at the direction European countries and Canada have been moving in and find that more rational than the ineffective criminal-justice approach in our country.”

Sen. John Kerry (Massachusetts)

One of the race’s leading liberals and top two fundraisers, Kerry told The New Yorker in 2002 that he had smoked pot a few times. But “he hasn’t been supportive,” says Bill Downing of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, especially when compared to fellow Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank.

The senator has told constituents he supports retaining the Higher Education Act’s student-loan ban, notes Downing, and pushed for more interdiction during his 16 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He did vote against the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 1999 (which could have outlawed publishing pot-growing advice) and may have indicated some support for medical marijuana. However, according to Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of the Marijuana Laws, Kerry would not answer Dr. Lester Grinspoon’s repeated requests that he sponsor Frank’s medical-pot bill in the Senate.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut)

Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 election, Lieberman was a sponsor of the RAVE Act in 2002, which as enacted this year makes it easier for the feds to prosecute rave promoters–or anyone letting people get high in their house, if you read the law literally. Arguably the most conservative of the nine Democrats in the race, he did oppose congressional attempts to suppress D.C.’s 1998 medical-marijuana vote, but he also sponsored a resolution condemning state medical-pot initiatives. His censorious stand on video games and popular music also puts him in untrustworthy territory.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (Missouri)

Gephardt, the former House minority leader, has concentrated his campaign on economic issues and healthcare. He doesn’t seem to have spent much time thinking about drugs, says Nadelmann. “I’ve never heard him make a statement one way or the other,” says Dan Viets of Missouri NORML. However, he voted for the 1998 resolution against medical marijuana, which passed 310-93.

Former governor Howard Dean (Vermont)

Dean’s strong opposition to the Iraq war and support for gay marriage have won him credentials as a liberal, but his legislative arm-twisting and veto threats killed Vermont’s medical-marijuana bill in 2002. “My opposition to medical marijuana is based on science, not based on ideology,” he told the Liberal Oasis website (liberaloasis.com) in May, adding that medical use should be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, not by “political means.”

The former governor’s rhetoric is good, says Nadelmann–he has called the drug war a failure and criticized mandatory-minimum sentences–but on the issues that actually crossed his desk, medical marijuana and methadone maintenance, he was “among the worst.”

Sen. Bob Graham (Florida)

Graham has the strongest drug warrior record of any of the nine. He sponsored the Ecstasy Prevention Act of 2001. As governor of Florida, he claimed credit for the state’s first mandatory-minimum law for drug smugglers. His website advocates building more prisons. However, he may not be completely closed-minded about medical marijuana.

A co-author of the 2001 USA Patriot Act, Graham has criticized Bush for invading Iraq instead of shoring up domestic security and going after al Qaida.

Sen. John Edwards (North Carolina)

Edwards told the San Francisco Chronicle in May that he supported more study on medical marijuana, but “wouldn’t change the law now”–a stance St. Pierre calls “weasely.” A first-term senator, he appears to be positioning himself as a Clintonesque candidate, a vaguely populist lawyer who can appeal to both Southerners and liberals. He has already raised over $7 million.

Rev. Al Sharpton (New York)

The New York activist hasn’t taken a specific position on pot but has been active in the movement to reform the state’s harsh Rockefeller drug laws. Sharpton has also been up-front in protesting police killing people in botched drug busts, such as the case of Alberta Spruill, a 57-year-old Harlem woman who died of a heart attack–literally scared to death–after police smashed in her door and set off a stun grenade in an “Oops–wrong address” raid on her apartment in May.

Former senator Carol Moseley-Braun (Illinois)

Moseley-Braun, the first black woman elected to the Senate, has verbally supported decriminalizing pot–though not legalizing it–since the 1970s but “never did anything to make it happen” during her 1993-1999 term, says St. Pierre, and her staff made it clear that it wasn’t one of her priorities. Her main issues have been criticizing Bush for invading Iraq, endangering civil liberties, and cutting taxes on the rich.

From the June 26-July 2, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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