Drug Czar Sends Flunkies to Try to Stop Columbia, Missouri, Marijuana Initiative

The Office of National Drug Control Policy sent deputy czar Scott Burns and speechwriter Kevin Sabet to Colombia, MO, Thursday in an attempt to put the brakes on a popular initiative that would send minor marijuana offenders into municipal court instead of state court. The move marks the return of ONDCP's efforts to defeat marijuana initiatives wherever they pop up, an effort that saw drug czar John Walters travel widely during last fall's election season in order to urge voters to reject such initiatives.

Walters and the ONDCP are already under fire for their intervention in state and local politics, most notably by the Marijuana Policy Project, which has filed campaign financing and ethics complaints against Walters for his attacks on a failed MPP-sponsored marijuana legalization initiative in Nevada last fall. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) opened up another front in the battle against ONCDCP interference in elections on Wednesday when he formally requested that the General Accounting Office investigate Burns for sending a November 2002 letter to prosecutors nationwide urging them to rally against marijuana reform efforts. (Visit http://www.mpp.org/WarOnDrugCzar/ for information on both topics.)

The initiative in question in Columbia, known as Proposition 1, would mandate that all marijuana possession arrests for less than 35 grams be handled in municipal court, thus allowing students in this University of Missouri college town to avoid losing federal financial aid under the anti-drug provision of the Higher Education Act. Columbia police currently have the option of sending minor offenders to either municipal or state court. The initiative, if passed, would remove that discretion. The initiative also includes protections for medical marijuana users and mandates a maximum $25 fine for a first small-time marijuana possession offense.

"We always assumed that if they ever found out about the initiative that they would probably increase the anti-marijuana ads in this town, but I don't think we ever thought they would come down and campaign against it," said Amy Fritz, development director for the Columbia Alliance for Patients and Education (CAPE). "They may not be saying 'vote no,' but it's not a mere coincidence that they're coming here."

Burns was certainly tiptoeing around any voting recommendations in Columbia Thursday, according to Fritz, who attended a luncheon where he rallied the troops against the measure. "Burns was very careful to not say to vote against Prop. 1," she told DRCNet, "although everyone else at the luncheon was pretty specific that they wanted the initiative defeated." Other attendees at the event included local political figures, worried parents, and members of anti-drug groups such as Act Missouri, which sponsored the event.

Although Burns and Sabet were careful not to overtly influence the election, their intent was clear. "We're not here to tell people how to vote," Sabet demurred in a pre-arrival statement. "The president has a strategy to reduce drug abuse, and any attempt to decriminalize or legalize drugs runs counter to our mission. Burns would not be telling people how to vote, said Sabet; instead, he would be "clearing up misinformation." Sabet then proceeded to provide a sterling example of misinformation himself, claiming that marijuana puts more teenagers in drug treatment every year than alcohol and other drugs combined, but failing to note that the majority of those teens in treatment for pot are there under court order by judges who view any marijuana use as evidence of abuse or addiction.

The content of Thursday luncheon cum pep rally was strikingly similar, said Fritz. "They trotted out the same tired propaganda," she said. "It's ironic indeed that they claim they came to town to clear up misinformation when they are the ones bringing the misinformation," she said. One striking example cited by Fritz was Burns' assertion that even a municipal court conviction for marijuana could cause students to lose federal financial aid under the HEA anti-drug provision. "These are blatant mistruths," said Fritz. "We have looked at the federal student loan application forms, and they clearly specify that it is only for a state or federal offense."

Despite the attack of the drug warriors, Fritz and CAPE are cautiously optimistic about the chances for victory in next week's vote. "We are confident; we have polls showing us five points ahead, and we are continuing to work hard at getting our supporters out to vote. We think it will be extremely close."

Armed with $10,000 from MPP, $15,000 from the Drug Policy Alliance, and about $5,000 raised from individual donors, CAPE is pulling out the stops as the hour draws near. "We're using that money for phone banking, to purchase a voter file to identify supporters, and to help mobilize our corps of volunteers to help get the vote out on Tuesday," said Fritz.

Regardless of the election outcome, reformers have already won a victory of sorts in Columbia. In an effort to dry up votes for the initiative, Police Chief Randy Boehm, an avowed opponent of the measure, announced late last month that the department would now make it official policy to divert anyone caught with less than 35 grams to municipal court. Previously, police had wavered, sending some to municipal court and some to state court.

But that's not good enough, said Fritz. "We are encouraged by the chief's move," she said, "even though we're certain he did it to try to dissuade voters from seeing the need to pass the initiative. It will allow the voters to see that the chief has acknowledged inconsistencies in enforcement of the law, but a policy change is not the law, a policy change can be undone. We need to pass Prop 1."

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