Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

The Drug War and Elections 2000

by Dave Borden and Philip Smith

No Bark, Strong Bite
Opponents of the drug war regarded their issue this election season as "The Dog That Didn't Bark" -- drug policy, once a highly inflammatory campaign issue -- was almost completely avoided this campaign by both major party candidates.

Yet a set of mostly successful ballot initiatives around the country have enacted profound changes in some states' drug policies. And if only by historical accident, drug war opponents have become key swing voters on both sides of the political divide in this year's presidential election.

This dog might not have barked, but in some expected and unexpected ways, it did bite.

Drug War and Its Opponents Swing Florida Vote
As this article goes to press, Gov. George W. Bush holds a tenuous 537-vote lead over Vice President Al Gore in the final pivot state of Florida -- about 0.01 percent of the state's total vote. But that is often less than half the size of some drug reform groups' Florida memberships. Our organization, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, has about 750.

Drug reform organizations did not stake out positions in this year's elections, and their memberships are spread across at least four national political parties: Democrat, Republican, Libertarian and Green.

The Libertarians and Greens, however, have strong pro-reform drug policy planks, and they both received enough votes to play a significant role in the outcome of the election, even if the Republican-Democrat split had been less ludicrously close. Libertarian candidate Harry Browne received 18,856 Florida votes, almost 58 times the current 327-vote split. The LP places a strong emphasis on its opposition to drug prohibition, and many of its voters support them for that very reason. Green candidate Ralph Nader, the leading figure in this year's third-party insurgency, received 96,837 Florida votes, 296 times the current split. Nader also opposes the drug war, albeit with less emphasis and ideological clarity than Browne. Some voters chose the Green Party because of the drug issue.

Libertarian and Green voters may not have all moved the totals in the same direction. It is conventional wisdom that many Greens represented votes that would otherwise have gone Democratic. Libertarian voters, however, are drawn from both Republican and Democratic camps, but probably more from Republican. The central point still holds: Mainstream politicians ignore the views of drug reformers at their peril. The same arguments, of course, could be made for other causes as well.

Much more complex, and divisive, than whether or not drug reformers had a measurable impact on the election outcome, is the question of how best to direct future potential impact to catalyze social change. Some reformers advocate voting third party, some single issue, while others are working actively within the major parties to change things, or feel that the stakes are too high to abandon one party or the other, despite their uniform failure on drug policy. (DRCNet discussed this issue in a pre-election article, "Reformers' Dilemma: Frick, Frack, or a Prophet from the Wilderness?")

The drug war took a bite this election in another, more tragic way, this one affecting the Gore candidacy almost exclusively. An article by Bruce Shapiro in pointed out that more than one third of African American men in Florida have permanently lost the right to vote because of past convictions, under the state's felony disenfranchisement law. A substantial percentage of them were caught up in the system as a result of drug laws. More than 90 percent of African Americans voted for Al Gore this election. While it is not known what the voting turnout would have been among those disenfranchised were they able to vote, only a modest percentage would have been needed to turn the vote Democratic, given the closeness of the Florida race.

Victories, Some Disappointments
While the nation continues to read tea leaves in Florida, members of the drug policy reform movement are nearly unanimous in declaring the elections an overall victory for the movement.

Of eight initiatives on state ballots, six passed. The only defeats came in Alaska, where a very loosely written marijuana legalization initiative went down with 40 percent of the vote, and in Massachusetts, where an envelope-pushing asset forfeiture and sentencing reform initiative sponsored by Campaign for New Drug Policies (CNDP) 53-47 percent.

In post-election conversations, various reformers also pointed to victories in Congress, where some noted drug warriors were sent packing.

"We were disappointed in Alaska," NORML Executive Director Keith Stroup said, "but we are cheered by the fact that Reps. Bill McCollum (R-FL) and James Rogan (R-CA) and Sen. John Ashcroft (R-M) all lost. McCollum was the worst," said Stroup, "absolutely terrible. Good riddance."

Stroup was part of a chorus of critics of the Alaska's initiative's language, which included an amnesty for marijuana offenders currently behind bars and a study of possible reparations for those harmed by marijuana prosecutions.

"That was the most badly-written initiative ever," said Stroup, "but we felt we had to support it. And the fact that even written as it was, 40 percent of voters approved it, makes me really optimistic that we can go back in two years and get it done."

In addition to the amnesty and reparations provisions, Stroup also pointed to lack of clarity in how marijuana would be distributed and the fact that it allowed 18-year-olds to legally partake.

"Nobody knows how distribution would have worked," said Stroup. "And Alaska has a recent history of controversy over teen alcohol use, so even though it may make sense to legalize consumption by 18-year-olds, it was something that dragged the vote down."

Doug McVay of Common Sense for Drug Policy (CSDP) agreed that the initiative was flawed, but also was heartened by the results. "I entered the movement with the Oregon decriminalization initiative in 1986," said McVay. "We only got 27 percent of the vote. If this initiative, worded as it was, could get 40 percent, that's progress."

Stroup said that NORML would continue to work with Alaska reformers to get a revised legalization initiative on the ballot in 2002. "We think we can win with a properly worded initiative then," he said.

California victory no indication that voters want to be compassionate with addicts
It was Campaign for New Drug Policies and Americans for Medical Rights, with their local organizations and deep-pocketed troika of funders, who could justly claim the most success. CNDP-supported initiatives won in California, Oregon and Utah, and AMR medical marijuana initiatives won handily in Colorado and Nevada. The only AMR-supported initiative to lose was the asset forfeiture and sentencing reform effort in Massachusetts.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, AMR and CNDP's Bill Zimmerman said the initiative victories represented "a turning point" for the drug reform movement.

In the same call, Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann concurred. "Since 1996, we have won 17 of 19 drug reform initiatives. The momentum is clearly on our side."

"We're also seeing a turn around among elected officials," Nadelmann continued. "Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Jesse Jackson a decade ago were real drug warriors, now they have turned around. And we have Maxine Waters and John Conyers who are moving ahead on the issue."

Nadelmann also singled out New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson as examples of elected officials now moving ahead on drug policy reform. "Johnson has toned down his rhetoric," Nadelmann said, "and is moving ahead on the ground, while Anderson has thrown DARE out of town and is now looking at instituting harm reduction measures in Salt Lake."

NORML's Stroup agreed. "From 1977, when Nebraska decriminalized possession, until 1996, we couldn't win anything," he said. "That trend has been almost completely reversed since California's Proposition 215 in 1996."

Zimmerman told the conference call that the Prop. 36 win was a victory of taxpayers, treatment providers, and medical professionals over police and prison guards' unions and drug court supporters.

Zimmerman talked up the widely touted savings that the state will accrue and the fact that some 24,000 people arrested for drug possession will avoid prison each year.

But in an indication of a split in the movement, some offered only half-hearted congratulations. For CSDP's McVay, "Prop. 36 was half a victory. It will keep people out of prison, and I'm for that. But it also calls for coerced treatment, which means people are still being arrested, and I'm not for that."

(Technically, Prop. 36 does not require coerced treatment, but offers defendants the option to of treatment in lieu of incarceration in cases where that option did not exist before. Also, Prop. 36 provides improved drug process rights to individuals undergoing court-ordered treatment. McVay's characterization is valid, however, and Prop. 36 is a good beginning for reformers, not a final policy goal.)

McVay also viewed the California victory as more of a taxpayer revolt than an indication that voters want to be compassionate with addicts.

Nadelmann and Zimmerman told the reporters that the Massachusetts measure most likely lost because of its provision that would have allowed low-level dealers as well as drug possessors to opt for treatment.

"That is where the opposition attacked us with their ads," said Nadelmann. "It shows there is no sympathy for drug dealers."

In response to a question about why AMR and Lindesmith/DPF did not support marijuana legalization initiatives, Zimmerman had a blunt response. "They can't win," he said, "we don't want to waste our time."

Indeed, the Alaska initiative and other failed legalization attempts all failed to meet criteria laid out by Zimmerman for garnering his organization's support. "We've got to have polling showing 60 percent support for an initiative before we will go with it," he said.

"We haven't seen that anywhere," he added.

Nadelmann, however, held out something of an olive branch to marijuana legalizers. "Our big funders are often portrayed as legalizers in the media," said Nadelmann, "but two out of three are not. They may come around on marijuana legalization, though."

As for the future, Zimmerman and Nadelmann professed to have no firm plans yet. "It's two days after the election," said Zimmerman, "and we will be concentrating on ensuring that the initiatives that passed will be implemented."

Nadelmann, however, told the conference call that he hoped that state legislatures and governors would now follow the leads of voters and of politicians such as Hawaii Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, who signed the nation's first legislatively-crafted medical marijuana bill.

Dave Fratello of the Campaign for a Sensible Drug Policy, the AMR-linked group behind California's Prop. 36 gave the Associated Press a hint of what may be to come.

"Michigan and Ohio are probably the places where you have the largest number of people affected, and you would send the loudest message. And they have the initiative process."

The biggest disappointment for many drug reformers was the failure of the Democratic party to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Though reformers are disenchanted with the top Democratic leadership, such a win for the Democrats would have placed John Conyers in the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Conyers has one of the best voting records on drug policy and criminal justice in the House, and has shown growing passion and support for ending the drug war. A Conyers chairmanship could be an historical turning point in U.S. drug policy, which now will have to wait at least two more years.

Initiative Roundup
The Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet) endorsed the following ballot initiatives. Here is how they fared:

ALASKA: Marijuana Legalization

failed: 39.56 percent in favor, 60.44 percent opposed

Ballot Measure #5 would have done away with civil and criminal penalties for persons 18 years or older who use marijuana or other hemp products. It would also have granted amnesties to persons previously convicted of marijuana crimes, and established a panel to study the question of reparations for those harmed by marijuana prohibition. DRCNet had no position on the panel but supported Measure #5 because of its other provisions.

CALIFORNIA: Sentencing Reform

passed: 60.8 percent in favor, 39.2 percent opposed

Proposition 36 will require that those convicted of nonviolent drug possession offenses for the first or second time be offered rehabilitation programs instead of state prison, and provides improved due process rights to those undergoing court-ordered treatment. DRCNet holds that persons found to be possessing drugs should have the option to simply left alone, but endorsed Prop. 36 as a politically realistic step in the right direction.

MENDOCINO COUNTY, CA: Marijuana Decriminalization

passed: 58 percent in favor, 42 percent opposed

Mendocino County Measure G will allow adults to grow 25 plants apiece, but not for sale. The measure further directs the county sheriff and prosecutor to make marijuana crimes their last priority and directs county officials to seek an end to state and federal marijuana laws.

This measure is partially symbolic, since state and local law enforcement can still prosecute marijuana crimes, but will relieve some law enforcement pressure and help to fuel debate.

COLORADO: Medical Marijuana

passed: 54 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed

Amendment 20 provides for legal medical marijuana use by patients with serious illnesses. Following the Americans for Medical Rights (AMR) template, the measure sets low limits of the quantity of marijuana and limits approved uses to certain illnesses or symptoms specified in the initiative or added later by the state.

DRCNet did not endorse the measure's limits on quantity and conditions which qualify, but supported Amendment 20 because current Colorado law offers no such protections, and some protection for medical marijuana patients is better than none.

MASSACHUSETTS: Sentencing and Asset Forfeiture Reform

failed: 47 percent in favor, 53 percent opposed

Question 8 would have diverted nonviolent drug offenders from prison to drug treatment at their request. It would also direct forfeited proceeds to a drug treatment trust fund and would require the civil equivalent of a guilty verdict before allowing property to be forfeited, instead of the easier-to-obtain probable cause rulings that suffice currently.

Other provisions, which ultimately led to the initiative's defeat, would have provided the treatment option to those arrested for low-level drug dealing as well as those arrested for simple possession.

DRCNet endorsed Question 8, with the same qualification as stated above for California Prop. 36.

NEVADA: Medical Marijuana

passed: 65 percent in favor, 35 percent opposed

Question 9 was the required second round of popular voting to approve this initiative. Question 9 does not specify plant of quantity limits, but leaves that issue up to the state legislature.

OREGON: Asset Forfeiture Reform

passed: 66 percent in favor, 34 percent opposed

Ballot Measure 3 will hold the state government to stricter standards of proof that property was the proceeds of crime or used to commit a crime. It also bars forfeiture unless the owner of the property is first convicted of a crime involving the seized property. Law enforcement would be restricted to claiming no more than 25 percent of seized assets.

UTAH: Asset Forfeiture Reform

passed: 68.9 percent in favor, 31.1 percent opposed

Initiative B will hold the state government to stricter standards of proof that property was the proceeds of crime or used to commit a crime. It also bars forfeiture unless the owner of the property is first convicted of a crime involving the seized property. Profits from seized assets will be deposited in the school fund.

Candidate Roundup
The following are selected results from races of interest to drug reformers:


Republican Congressman Tom Campbell ran on a strong drug reform platform, but could not overcome the well funded, long time incumbent, Diane Feinstein. Campbell lost 56 percent-36 percent. Libertarian and Green Party candidates picked up 5 percent of the vote. Reformers have at least temporarily lost one of their few Republican allies in Congress (district 15).

CALIFORNIA: 27th Congressional District

Republican drug warrior Jim Rogan lost his seat to challenger Adam Schiff. Rogan, who had supported medical marijuana in the California legislature, earned drug reformers' scorn by switching his position immediately upon being elected to Congress. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rogan went so far as to support an amendment opposing even research on medical marijuana.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Activists Rob Kampia and Matt Mercurio's "Stop the Drug War" campaign for US Delegate (DC's non-voting Congressional representative) and at-large City Council garnered 4,378 votes (Kampia) and 5,477 (Mercurio), under the auspices of the Libertarian Party. While falling short, this first time, of the 7,500 votes needed to secure major party status and eliminate future signature gathering requirements, the campaign garnered substantial media coverage and raised awareness of the issue in the shadow of the federal government.


Drug war zealot Republican Rep. Bill McCollum ran for the seat vacated by retiring Republican Connie Mack. He was defeated by Democrat Bill Nelson, 51 percent-46 percent.

KENTUCKY: 6th Congressional District

Drug warrior Republican Ernie Fletcher fended off Democratic challenger Scotty Baesler and insurgent Reform Party candidate Gatewood Galbraith, who ran on a pro-gun, pro-marijuana platform. The vote favored Fletcher, 51 percent-35 percent-12 percent.


Incumbent Republican drug warrior John Ashcroft lost to the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, 50 percent-48 percent. It is anticipated that the acting governor will appoint Gov. Carnahan's widow to the seat, to serve until another election is held two years from now.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor November 29, 2000 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.