Hillary and Obama, Ignore the Sleazy Pollsters Who Want You to Cave on Drug Reform
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
"It had taken a couple of years before I saw how fates were beginning to play themselves out, the difference that color and money made after all, in who survived, how soft or hard the landing when you finally fell," Barack Obama wrote in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father . "Of course, either way, you needed some luck. That's what Pablo had lacked, mostly, not having his driver's license that day, a cop with nothing better to do than to check the trunk of his car."
Obama's compassion for the friend he inhaled Hawaiian pakalolo with doesn't extend to sparing other pot smokers from arrest, however. "I'm not interested in legalizing drugs," he said in Nevada in mid-January, after being told that if he'd been arrested when he was a teenager, he never would have been a candidate for the presidency.
Hillary Clinton is no better. Her husband's infamous declaration that he "didn't inhale" was likely a legalistic dodge to conceal his onetime fondness for eating hash brownies, and the website CelebStoner.com this week quoted a law-school friend recalling that Hillary too had enjoyed similar pastries. Yet when MSNBC's Tim Russert asked the Democratic candidates last October if they opposed decriminalizing marijuana, Clinton raised her hand, as did the others in the debate except for Christopher Dodd and Dennis Kucinich. (Obama's hand went up somewhat hesitantly; according to the Washington Times , he told students at Northwestern University in 2004 that he supported decriminalization but not legalization.)
"Would they have benefited by being arrested?" asks Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance Network. "That raises the hypocrisy of why they continue to support policies that incarcerate people."
Still, this year's Democratic presidential candidates have adopted more nuanced and progressive positions on drug policy than they did in the tough-on-crime era, Piper and other activists say. Both Clinton and Obama say they will end federal raids on medical marijuana users and lift the ban on federal funding of needle-exchange programs. And both have spoken about alternatives to mass incarceration, such as increased drug treatment.
"If you look at past presidential elections, no one's ever talked about the disproportionate representation of African-Americans in the criminal justice system," says Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. "It's encouraging that candidates are talking about it now." A key issue is the federal cocaine laws. Enacted at the height of the late-1980s crack panic, they mandate a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of five grams of crack, which could be worth as little as $200, and the same penalty for 500 grams of powdered cocaine, worth at least $10,000 wholesale. That law is largely responsible for the grossly disproportionate numbers of black people in federal prison for drugs. In 2002, the federal Sentencing Commission found that more than 70 percent of federal cocaine convictions were of bottom-level drug enterprise workers, and street-level crack dealers on average served longer prison terms than did importers and high-level suppliers of cocaine powder.
Clinton, who has been under pressure for years on the issue, in December co-sponsored a bill to make the federal penalties the same for both varieties of cocaine, eliminating the 100-1 disparity. But when the Sentencing Commission reduced mandatory minimums for crack last November, she opposed making the change retroactive for current prisoners. Clinton's top pollster and strategist, Mark Penn, noted that Rudy Giuliani was already attacking Democrats for wanting to release "20,000 convicted drug dealers."
Of the 19,500 people who would have their prison terms shortened if the change were retroactive, 86 percent are African-American, Hilary Shelton of the NAACP told the Sentencing Commission. Previous changes in penalties for marijuana and LSD were made retroactive, she added.
Obama supported making the changes retroactive. But he has not signed on to the crack-sentencing bill, says Gotsch. Republican Ron Paul has signed on to a similar measure in the House.
On needle exchange, says Michael Kink, legislative counsel at Housing Works, an AIDS activist group in New York State, there is "a clear contrast between the parties." All the Democratic candidates returned a questionnaire from AIDSVote.org, and none of the Republicans did. But the Democrats have a mixed record, he says.
Clinton came out for ending the federal ban on funding needle-exchange programs during her senatorial campaign in 2000, Kink recalls, the day after he and others were arrested in a sit-in at her campaign office. Bill Clinton repeatedly refused to end the ban while he was president, "even though he was advised that it would save lives and be a front door to treatment," says Kink, because Mark Penn, then his chief pollster, told him it was too risky politically. "It was one of the most pathetic episodes of the Clinton presidency." That dichotomy persists in the Clinton campaign, Kink says. The senator and her staff are very knowledgeable, but "the thing to worry about is the balance between substance and sleazy pollsters."
Obama, Kink says, has a fairly clear understanding of the interaction between prison, drugs, sex and HIV infection, and has spoken out "more forcefully" on the racial disparities in prison sentencing and linked it to the epidemic of HIV infection in prisons.
On medical marijuana, both Clinton and Obama received A grades from Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana, a New Hampshire offshoot of the Marijuana Policy Project. In Iowa last November, Obama said he was open to legalizing medical marijuana if scientific evidence showed it was a valid painkiller and it was prescribed under "strict guidelines" like those for morphine. In contrast, Republicans John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who all unequivocally oppose medical marijuana, got F's. Ron Paul got an A-plus, as did Democratic dropouts Kucinich and Bill Richardson.
"It's encouraging that all of the Democrats and at least a couple of the Republicans say they'd call off the raids," says MPP spokesperson Bruce Mirken. "That wasn't the case four years ago."
Still, in a nation where most people under 60 have either smoked weed themselves or grew up around people who did, there were 740,000 marijuana-possession arrests in 2006, the fourth year in a row that pot busts hit a record high. And the only presidential candidates in this year's crop to endorse making it legal like liquor have been Kucinich and Paul, both derided as "fringe." "There's a belief out there that this is a fringe issue, and it's not," responds Mirken. "The general public is several steps ahead of the politicians and particularly several steps ahead of their consultants and campaign managers, but the politicians don't know that. They're afraid."
When MPP was lobbying for medical marijuana laws in Vermont and Rhode Island, he says, its polls found that two-thirds of residents in those states supported the idea. Yet when those people were asked if they believed a majority of people in their state would agree, only 25 or 30 percent thought so.
Steven Wishnia is the author of Exit 25 Utopia , The Cannabis Companion and Invincible Coney Island. He lives in New York.