Drug Warriors Crusade Against Reform Initiatives

On drug policy, the voting public has proven ready to lead spaniel-like politicians by the nose, voting for one liberalization measure after another. But government, state and local officials have begun a crusade to scuttle reform initiatives around the nation.

Three wealthy drug reform proponents have backed a string of successful state ballot initiatives across the nation. Focusing initially on medical marijuana measures out west, billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis and multi-millionaire John Sperling have won 12 of 13 ballot measures since 1996. Their handiwork also includes Proposition 36, which mandates treatment rather than prison for low-level drug offenders and was passed overwhelmingly in California in 2000. Other activists have similarly outflanked the officials who lag behind public opinion, and the reform movement as a whole has won 17 of 19 ballot measures -- much to the chagrin of drug warriors.

Admitting to considerable surprise in 1996, Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey drew a line in the sand, in part by initiating the White House anti-drug media campaign. But all levels of government, from local district attorneys to governors and the new federal drug czar John P. Walters, have refined their counterattack on the drug reform movement.

The National Counter-Attack on Drug Reform

This year, the California-based Campaign for New Drug Policies, the main agency of the wealthy trio's reform ambitions, consciously set its sights on Republican-dominated states east of the Mississippi. It sought to put to vote Prop. 36-style treatment amendments in Florida, Ohio and Michigan. A cautious CNDP, which typically requires favorable poll ratings exceeding 60 percent before committing its resources to a reform inititative, proceeded with some confidence. But it has since run into a Republican-led buzzsaw (not that Democrats necessarily embrace reform more warmly), and only the Ohio measure ran the full gauntlet to make it to the ballot.

In Ohio, the measure is becoming a victim of outrageous ballot language promulgated by a Republican-led elections board. Its popularity is sinking badly in the polls, currently losing by 20 points. The loaded ballot language is part of the orchestrated, improper and possibly illegal months-long anti-initiative campaign being orchestrated by Ohio Governor Bob Taft. The Ohio effort has been so cutthroat and effective, CNDP political director Dave Fratello admitted, "If we lose, it's a road map to show how to beat us in subsequent states like Michigan and Florida."

Elsewhere, federal and state judges have stymied reform, in some cases by simply refusing to issue timely rulings. A Michigan appeals court blatantly let the clock run out on a Detroit medical marijuana measure, deigning to hold a hearing only long after the deadline for printing ballots had passed. In Florida, the state Supreme Court delayed holding a hearing for so long that the CNDP has decided not to gather any more signatures; it has 300,000 valid signatures in the bank should it return to the fray in 2004.

And in Washington, D.C., a medical marijuana effort was shot down when a federal appeals court tossed out a lower court ruling that stated, "There can be no doubt that the Barr Amendment restricts plaintiffs' First Amendment right to engage in political speech." The reference is to the rider -- introduced by Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) -- now automatically attached to the federal D.C. appropriations bills that prevents Washington from spending a single dollar to enact any reduction of marijuana penalties. Alexei Silverman, an associate with Covington & Burling who worked on the case on behalf of the Marijuana Policy Project, said the appeals court basically avoided the First Amendment issues and agreed with the feds' assertions that the mechanical act of voting is part of the legislative process, not exercising the right to speech. Barr applauded the ruling, "which recognized the right and responsibility of Congress to protect citizens from dangerous, mind-altering narcotics."

Going solo, Peter Lewis has boosted the funding of a dynamic, cheeky upstart, the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which in years past has pursued reform largely in state legislatures. Now, in its first electoral battle (apart from its support for the disqualified D.C. effort), MPP has spent $1.7 million shooting for the moon in Nevada. It managed to qualify in an audaciously short time a perhaps quixotic effort to legalize the possession of up to three ounces of pot. Even if it passes this year and again in 2004 as Nevada requires, the measure calls for the state to establish legal distribution channels. And, no matter what statements drug czar John Walters may have made in Nevada regarding federal respect for states' rights, the feds aren't going to let that happen. This is the same administration that's been busting medical dispensaries this fall all over California, typically targeting the ones most above-board and publicly strident in asserting their rights.

Meanwhile in Arizona, John Sperling has backed a decriminalization measure, Proposition 203. It states that personal-use possession of marijuana will be punishable by a $250 civil fine. It also eliminates mandatory minimum drug sentencing and requires parole for possession of any drug unless the individual is a danger to the public. And it increases sentences for violent crimes committed under the influence of drugs. Sporting its own bit of distribution audacity, it would sidestep Arizona doctors' timorous refusal to write marijuana prescriptions by directing state police to distribute seized marijuana free of charge to certified patients.

Seeking, it would seem, to sow confusion among voters, Maricopa County attorney Rick Romley -- who touted his candidacy for drug czar following President Bush's selection -- got the curiously numbered Proposition 302 on the ballot. With no real money or much public support, he turned to the legislature to put it on the ballot; the numbering mirroring Sperling's measure may be its greatest asset. If passed, it allows for the option of incarceration rather than 203's mandatory parole for simple possession. And it allows for jailing addicts who fail in treatment. If both measures pass, whichever has more votes goes into effect.

Arizona, Nevada and Ohio, the main remaining battlegrounds, have all been graced by Walters' campaign appearances, who was in Nevada twice. A member of Bush's cabinet, he rails against the initiatives while dismissing criticism about publicly funded federal interference in state elections. What's more, the federal government has worked overtime issuing reports demonizing drugs, particularly marijuana. This September, the White House launched a new, taxpayer-funded ad campaign that maintains smoking pot leads to either the slaughter of innocent bystanders or, in a second ad, mere crippling for life. Though Walters told Congress in May such ads don't keep kids from drugs, they do poison the well for drug reform.

"There's a certain irony in all this that the state and federal governments have learned how to beat back democracy," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Foundation.

Changing Ballot Language In Ohio

Turning to specifics, though several states vie for the crown of most unabashed electioneering, Ohio trumps all comers. A concerted effort by Governor Taft, the federal government and private activists to defeat the treatment-not jail initiative in Ohio bore only mixed results: until recently, polls favored the measure. But it may be defeated by a single wordy paragraph - the crucial summary at the top of the ballot, all that many voters read - that's promulgated by the Republican-controlled Ohio Ballot Board, led by Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican.

This ballot summary emphasizes the measure's $247 million seven-year cost, and it discusses the sealing of offenders' records and the 90-day maximum sentences. The state-approved summary doesn't mention the likely overall savings, nor indicate that drug dealers or violent criminals are excluded. In fact, said Fratello, until threatened with a lawsuit, the ballot board wanted to obscure even the fact that the $247 million stretched over seven years. "It's clear they're trying to skew the ballot language," he charged. "There's no talk in the summary of treatment, job training, court monitoring or jail if they fail. They just focus on the dismissal of charges, a prison limit of 90 days and especially the $247 million. That could be the whole ball of wax."

In late August, the official summary then unavailable, the Columbus Dispatch found the proposal favored by 43 percent to 37 percent. Using the summary, in mid-September, the Cleveland Plain Dealer found 55 percent opposed, and only 30 percent in favor. Rather than read a long explanation, the paper asserted that, "Most [voters] are expected to read a one-paragraph preamble, which includes elements that appear to favor the 'no' side." An anti-initiative spokesperson admitted that the ballot language was a main cause of the steep slide in support.

A subsequent Dispatch poll using the summary found 51 percent against, 31 percent in favor. The paper noted, "The specific ballot language and forceful opposition from Gov. Bob Taft and a number of statewide organizations apparently made a big difference with Ohioans." It added that the ballot language "does not detail any potential savings accrued because treatment costs about one-sixth the cost of incarceration." The Ohio CNDP asserts that, even including the cost of treatment ($3,500 a year, rather than prison's $22,000), the measure would save the state $21 million annually. In far-bigger California, according to a study sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Prop. 36 saves the state $40 million annually.

CNDP's backers spent some $1 million gathering nearly 800,000 signatures to qualify for the Ohio ballot. Given the polling, the three wealthy backers gave serious consideration to cutting their losses by skipping any big, last-minute ad buy, which have been key to CNDP's many successes. But feeling that voters who understood the measure supported it, one source said, "There'll be a solid two weeks' full-court press." This source estimates that would entail $500,000 or more of television ad time pushing the measure.

The ballot summary is perhaps just the last fatal blow of a concerted effort by Taft and his administration to subvert Ohio's electoral process. Details have emerged in the Ohio press as well as in my report published by the Washington think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. Taft, his wife, his chief of staff, two Ohio 'cabinet' members and numerous other officials conceived and directed an anti-initiative campaign at taxpayer expense. They were aided by Mary Ann Solberg, the nominee for the position of Office of National Drug Control Policy's deputy director, as well as a senior U.S. Senate staffer (who hosted a stategy session in the U.S. Capitol building itself), the drug czars of Florida and Michigan and a senior DEA agent. Betty Sembler, a controversial private treatment maven who is married to the former finance chair of the Republican National Committee, also participated, as did four top executives from the supposedly apolitical Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The PDFA ended up producing no ads for the Taft effort, but documents indicate its overt willingness to help with ads touting Ohio's current policies.

The Taft effort involved hundreds of hours of state-paid staff time, including weekly strategy sessions, some in the governor's residence. State funds paid for out of town trips and overnight lodging, and at one point Ohio officials even proposed diverting U.S. Dept. of Justice crime-fighting grants to fund polling, focus groups and advertising. The documents detailing all these expenses cover only 2001. Since then, terming the initiative "seductive, deceptive and dangerous," Taft sent out on his letterhead a plea for donations ranging up to $25,000 to defeat it. For his part, John Walters took his show to Columbus in mid-October to blast the treatment initiative, saying "It will weaken the tools that the courts have to help get people into treatment." The Toledo Blade quoted him saying it would also "weaken the ability of society to use 'compassionate coercion' to help nonviolent drug offenders."

Walters Takes On Nevada

Walters was relatively restrained in Ohio compared to his pronouncements during two trips to Nevada. In July he warned the state against becoming a "center for drug tourism." And he said the initiative would "feed the criminal organizations that are a dangerous threat to democratic institutions in the Western Hemisphere." During his mid-October visit, employing a bit of mangled syntax almost worthy of his boss, he said, "By stimulating the use of drugs, we make all other institutions of society more difficult to carry out." And he was quoted in the Reno Gazette-Journal as saying, "More crimes are stimulated by people under the influence of drugs, who become more violent, dangerous and paranoid."

Walters recognizes the impropriety of what he's doing. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal "his office 'would not spend money or dedicate any resources' " to fighting the measure. Does that mean private funds pay his and his security detail's travel expenses? On a trip this week to Chicago, he told The Chicago Tribune that he campaigns against the initiatives only "reluctantly." But after being "contacted repeatedly," by prevention professionals, he agreed to appear. But, he said, "I certainly understand the dangers of federal officials, a White House official, coming to a state and talking about a state ballot issue. We didn't use to do this." With a flair for irony, he added, "There's a kind of reefer madness-madness going on here." Remarkably enough, given the DEA hammer raining down in California, Walters also told the Review-Journal, "People have the right to make their own decisions. I don't believe you'd see federal officials coming into Nevada to enforce possession laws."

But his own ONDCP spokesman, Tom Riley, stated this August that the feds "would not allow the state to tax and sell marijuana. The sale of marijuana is a violation of federal law, and there is nothing that a state referendum can do to change that." Walters might want to coordinate with the DEA before floating his hands-off claims. A DEA spokesman told the Chicago Tribune, "We will respond to this in a way similar to the approach used for the cannabis buyers clubs [in California]. This is still against federal law."

Officials might also want to get on the same page regarding the amount of pot involved. Nevada cops blast the initiative's three ounces as an amount that would produce 250 joints. But still in soft-sell mode, Walters told NPR back in August that the amount is "quite small. Usually, there's no federal enforcement of possession amounts at that level, especially for marijuana." Speaking in Reno, however, Walters also used the '250 joints' estimate.

Similarly, when he visited Tucson and Phoenix on October 9th to voice his opposition to the Arizona measure, joined by both major-party gubernatorial candidates, Walters told a group of elementary students and senior citizens that the Arizona measure is "a stupid, insulting con," according to The Arizona Republic.

Local Nevada law enforcement officials have also been working overtime to oppose legalization. And a highly partisan state board of health hearing in early October featured not one proponent's testimony. Not surprisingly, the board voted unanimously against the measure. At that hearing, the then spokesman for the opposition, Clark County Deputy DA Gary Booker, alleged that George Soros backed drug cartels in South America, and that he had contributed to MPP. According to the Review-Journal, Booker based his accusation on the say-so of Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state senator Joe Neal, who had lifted it from a publication owned by Lyndon LaRouche. Soros has not been linked to drug cartels and has not supported MPP's effort in Nevada.

As to public officials' opposition in general, the initiative's campaign manager Billy Rogers said, "We haven't made a big issue out of it. They can get away with it, so they do it. Part of it is the arrogance of power, but there's not a lot we can do to stop them. An old hand in politics once told me: Figure out what reality is in a campaign and deal with it." Rogers said over the summer he tried to raise questions about the sheriff department's politicking using marijuana obtained from the official evidence vault, but it didn't faze them, and the media wasn't interested. "There's a good old boy network, and they do what they damn well please," he said. Rogers probably won't achieve much more traction with his complaints about the opposition including Las Vegas police department letterhead on a press release or the fact that Booker's replacement as spokesperson is also the police department's spokesperson. (The letterhead didn't appear on a subsequent release.)

Last week, Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa came out against legalization, hypothesizing about potential large-scale civil liabilities if smokers of state-distributed marijuana subsequently got cancer. Rogers blasted the notion, noting that sellers of cigarettes and alcohol incur no liability.

Michigan Loses Out

The anti-initiative effort in Michigan did not achieve the rarefied heights of official state support it enjoys in Ohio, while the campaign has centered on local district attorneys. One highlight was a meeting at Detroit DEA headquarters in late August where White House deputy drug czar Mary Ann Solberg addressed some four-dozen judges, sheriffs, prosecutors, state police, DEA agents, the drug czar of Michigan and private drug policy professionals from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Georgia. According to the formal invitation, printed on DEA/U.S. Dept of Justice letterhead, participants were to: "share their ideas and strategies and possibly combine resouces in combating drug legalization proposals." (Opponents invariably refer to treatment rather than jail initiatives as 'legalization.')

The meeting also intended to "provide presentations on how the DEA can assist state leaders in this battle." Solberg lectured these high-powered individuals on the Bush Administration's new anti-marijuana TV advertising. Judge Brian W. MacKenzie, a Michigan district judge, said Solberg "talked of the federal government's new initiative with regard to marijuana." He said she described it as a new nationwide ad campaign geared to educate the public about marijuana's dangers, and that it was Solberg's main focus. In fact, MacKenzie added, one attendee asked her about the possibility of the new ad campaign targeting or emphasizing Michigan and Ohio, but she replied that wasn't possible.

Detroit's own Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) disseminated the basic details of the DEA's late-August confab following his letter to DEA Director Asa Hutchinson demanding an investigation of "possible misuse of federal funds without proper authorization by Congress and in contravention of existing law. Replying, Hutchinson referred to the DEA "educat[ing] the public about the dangers of drugs." He stated that the meeting was called to evaluate the initiative's impact and to "carefully consider how we should respond."

For her part, Solberg, who advised President Clinton on the disbursement of federal anti-drug funds and has served on the board of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, launched her opposition to the Michigan and Ohio treatment initiatives long before this August meeting. Upon her July, 2001 nomination to the ONDCP deputy directorship, she received an e-mail from Ohio First Lady Hope Taft requesting assistance. Solberg referred Taft to Michigan's drug czar, Craig Yaldoo, rather than a private individual more suited to run a political campaign. She wrote: "I met with Craig last week, and he is very interested in taking up the fight and appears to be on top of the Soros people and their movements in Michigan. I suggested he form a partnership with you to fight the prop[osition]. Solberg herself worked to form the Michigan anti-initiative Committee To Protect our Kids. James Halushka, an Oakland County Deputy Prosecutor, told me she was the committee's "godmother." He added, "The spark came from Mary Ann - no question." That spark flared months after President Bush publicly nominated her to her post. As to Solberg's current involvement, Halushka said, "She has continued to be of help. She has continued to help with connections to people and data."

Michigan's powerhouse Republican governor, John Engler, did his part, as well. This summer he vetoed $845 million in state revenue-sharing funds headed to local governments. He publicly promised to restore the crucial funding if voters rejected the treatment measure along with two other initiatives he decried as fiscally unsound. The Michigan legislature over-rode his veto, thrashing him with a combined vote of 141 to 2.

As of now, the DEA need host no further meetings on the Michigan initiative. Due to CNDP's lawyers' mind-boggling mistake in misnumbering the petition, it was disqualified.

The Never-ending Campaign

Opponents slam wealthy reform backers for bamboozling the public with slick advertising. True, the rich trio and others can spend a couple of million bucks in a single state. But that pales before the taxpayers' own $150 million and more a year. Take the White House's national ad campaign which is clearly aimed at defeating the various initiatives. In one ad, the protagonist buys some pot. As events inevitably unfold in the ONDCP world view, the ad describes the chain of distribution, ending with: "And this is the family that was lined up by Dan's cartel and shot for getting in the way." Boston University School of Public Health professor William De Jong consulted with a White House contractor on the media campaign's initial design. Interpreting Solberg's remarks, he said, "Their true motivation is being revealed: to influence referenda, though they will claim otherwise." De Jong added, "They're trying to use the campaign to present information that might influence the outcome of voter referenda." Dr. David Duncan, an associate professor of medicine at Brown University, helped design a study of the ads' efficacy for an ONDCP consultant. His interpretation: "It's pretty obvious they are hoping the ads will shade people's opinions on drugs in general, and that that will spill over to their views on the initiatives."

According to AdAge.com, various anti-marijuana ads will occupy $60 million worth of advertising between this September and January, 2003. It's all part of a second five-year media campaign that Congress authorized this year at $762 million despite Walters' admission that it did not actually lower teen drug use. With the media required to sell its time and space to ONDCP on a two-for-one basis, after expenses, there'll be approximately $1.3 billion of anti-drug advertising over the next five years. Half will likely be directed at adult voters, and all of it will tend, however indirectly, to poison the drug-reform well.

As I disclosed on Salon in July, 2000, the initial five-year media campaign was engendered at a meeting Barry McCaffrey convened in Washington nine days after the 1996 passage of the first two medical marijuana initiatives. Some forty officials and private sector executives met to discuss the use of taxpayer-funded messages to thwart other potential initiatives. They included two White House officials, the head of the DEA, representatives of the FBI, Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Treasury and Education, along with state law enforcement personnel and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. One private participant was quoted in the meeting's minutes as saying, "We'll work with Arizona and California to undo it and stop the spread of legalization to [the] other 48 states."

Daniel Forbes writes on social policy. His recent report on state and federal political malfeasance geared to defeat treatment rather than incarceration ballot initiatives was published by the Institute for Policy Studies. Much of his work, including his series in Salon that led to his testimony before both the Senate and the House, is archived at The Media Awareness Project.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}