Istook On Drugs

Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) is a mischievous soul. He doesn't command the media spotlight like fellow Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, and he certainly isn't a household name like former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich, but there always seems to be some sort of cockamamie "Istook Amendment" circulating in Congress.

A few years back he offered up the so-called Religious Freedom Amendment, a provision that the Anti-Defamation League called a "pernicious and dangerous assault on religious freedom." Now, the longtime conservative congressman is going after free speech.

While the Consolidated Appropriations Act - 2004 (H.R. 2673) was in conference committee, Rep. Istook, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, inserted a provision that would prohibit all local and state transit agencies from displaying marijuana policy reform advertising if they receive funding from the federal government -- which pretty much covers most transit agencies in the country.

Rep. Istook's anti-marijuana reform amendment comes on the heels of his having slashed $90,000 from Washington, DC's transit authority budget in December after discovering that local buses were carrying advertisements -- placed by a Massachusetts-based pro-marijuana legalization group, Change the Climate, Inc. -- that had the tagline, "Enjoy Better Sex! Legalize and Tax Marijuana."

"At a time when the nation and Washington, D.C., area in particular suffer from chronic substance abuse and sexually transmitted disease, I find it shocking that WMATA provides this ad space, and at no cost!" Istook wrote in a Nov. 10 letter to the chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Rep. Istook isn't opposed to advertisements dealing with marijuana per se. As Ron Kampia, the executive director of the DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, wrote in a letter to Rep. Istook dated January 15, there are a number of "display ads that discuss the subject of marijuana" -- including one produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy entitled "The Enforcer" -- that are placed on DC Metro system vehicles.

Kampia pointed out that Rep. Istook's support for prohibiting marijuana reform advertisements appears to be a bit disingenuous given the fact that the congressman receives financial support from the alcohol industry. In October 2003, for example, the National Beer Wholesalers Association PAC contributed $5,000 to his campaign coffers.

In addition to the $5,000, Istook received nearly $20,000 from the NBW PAC between 1998 and 2002, according to the Federal Elections Commission Web site. He also got $1,000 from Anheuser-Busch's PAC in October 2002 and $1,000 from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America PAC in September of last year.

"It's fair to say that Rep. Istook is awash in alcoholic beverage industry money," Bruce Mirken, MPP's Director of Communications told WorkingForChange in an e-mail exchange. "Perhaps that's why we hear so much from him about marijuana and so little about alcohol, which is well documented to be far more toxic and far more addictive."

The Istook Amendment "is in direct violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, [and it] is just one more example of the desire by federal officials to have the public hear only one message on the subject of marijuana, and that message is that 'Marijuana is bad and must be prohibited,'" said Steve Fox, the director of government relations for the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project.

"Over the past six years," Fox pointed out, "Congress has given the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to convey this message, but now that advocates of marijuana policy reform want to promote an alternative viewpoint -- with their own money, no less -- marijuana prohibitionists in Congress are trying to silence them. This is called 'viewpoint discrimination,' and it violates the First Amendment."

Rep. Istook is no stranger to the loopy side of censorship and separation of church and state issues. As one of the most conservative members of the House he has, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, compiled a 0 percent record when it comes to voting on issues of concern to the ACLU.

Over the past few years, he has supported such issues as: allowing school prayer during the War on Terror; allowing vouchers in DC schools; allowing vouchers for private & parochial schools; giving federal aid only to schools allowing voluntary prayer; and letting schools display the words "God Bless America." The congressman also supports and sponsored a Constitutional Amendment for school prayer.

In 1998, Istook authored the "Religious Freedom Amendment" which the Anti-Defamation (ADL) said "would take the country back to the days when public schools forced a single religion upon students of myriad faiths."

"The cleverly named 'Religious Freedom Amendment' constitutes one of the most pernicious and dangerous assaults on religious freedom that we have seen in many years," said Howard P. Berkowitz, ADL National Chairman. "It is really religious coercion in disguise and opens the door for public schools to impose prayer and religious ceremony on students, as well as for religious symbols in courthouses and other government institutions. Passage of the Amendment would allow for an unprecedented entanglement of government and religion to the detriment of both."

Rep. Istook isn't alone in his effort to freeze out pro-marijuana advertisements. According to Aaron Houston, the campaign coordinator for Granite Staters [New Hampshire] for Medical Marijuana, Comcast, the largest cable TV provider in the nation, has refused to air its advertisements in support of ending prosecution of medical marijuana users. A late-December picket line at Comcast's Manchester offices organized by Houston's group brought media attention to the issue.

According to a spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, Comcast told the group that the company would refuse to run any advertisements supporting any kind of marijuana policy reform, including medical marijuana ads. Although it is company policy nationwide, according to the MPP, Comcast refuses to put it in writing. MPP was looking to spend $10,000 in issue ads before the January 27 New Hampshire primary.

This year alone, the White House drug czar's office will spend $145,000,000 to run anti-marijuana scare ads, and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America is receiving $50,000 worth of free airtime "to run its own untruthful TV ads," an MPP spokesperson charged.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Marijuana Policy Project is hoping the "The Istook Amendment" will be removed from the omnibus appropriations bill. If it isn't, the organization is pledging to sue the federal government to have the provision declared unconstitutional. "MPP will not only succeed in this legal fight, but we will also succeed in embarrassing the drug warriors when our legal fight generates free publicity for our issue," Mirken said.


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