Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.
November 4, 2004
The 2004 Election and the Future of Marijuana Legalization
The 2004 election marks a crucial turning point for efforts to legalize marijuana, and it's value for the reform movement lies not in what was accomplished on election day but instead on the valuable lessons revealed by the returns and exit polling.
The 2004 election results represent a subtle but important repudiation of the reform strategies followed by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). The marijuana legalization movement can only prosper by holding these self-proclaimed leaders of the reform movement accountable for their inept strategies and ill-advised priorities.
First, let's look at some of the most glaring lessons to be learned from the 2004 election returns.
The Youth Vote is not a sufficient source of political power. Unprecedented efforts were made in this election cycle to register and turn out young voters. MSNBC reported that voters age 18 - 29 favored Kerry over Bush, for example, by 54% to 45%. However Reuters reported that among first time voters, age 18 - 24, participation in the election stayed the same as in the 2000 election, about 1 in 10 voters. Support from these young voters was not enough to elect Kerry, nor was it sufficient to pass marijuana ballot initiatives without other support - contributing to the failure of ballot measures in Alaska and Oregon. According to CNN Alaska Measure 2 received 56% of the vote from voters age 18 to 29, but only 41% of voters 30 to 44 and worse among older voters. The same trend is evident in Oregon where Measure 3 attracted 52% of the vote from the age 18 - 29 age group, 46% from the 30 -44 age group, and did even worse with older voters.
State electorates are not willing to authorize marijuana distribution systems in conflict with federal law. Older voters are not stupid. They know that marijuana distribution systems will clash with federal law. They will authorize sensible policies like protecting medical marijuana users from state and local prosecution, but they also reluctant to indulge unrealistic responses to important public policy issues. In Alaska, for example, adults over the age of 21 are already protected from prosecution by the Alaskan Supreme Court. Oregon was one of the first states to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and already recognizes medical marijuana use under state law. Voters in these states are not necessarily hostile or close-minded about marijuana law reform. Their failure to support further reform sends a clear message.
Marijuana legalization efforts can not succeed without support from social, professional, and business leaders respected by large blocs of adult voters otherwise too preoccupied with their responsibilities in life to pay detailed attention to policy issues. Populist and direct appeals to the electorate do not produce results from middle aged, educated, and/or moderate voters. Aside from locally organized campaigns the initiatives in both Alaska and Oregon benefited from extensive advertising funded by the Marijuana Policy Project in the weeks prior to the election. The justification for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on such advertising is direct contact with the voters without filters, a populist strategy that depends on just reaching the people. Well, many adult voters trust those filters. Both the Oregon and Alaskan measures lost support as voting groups got older and more educated. Many adult voters won't support reform projects unless other civic leaders have signaled their approval. This is a well known characteristic of the diffusion of ideas often overlooked by cynics and ideologues. Nonetheless it is a part of the political landscape.
Marijuana legalization efforts can not succeed without a direct and sincere attempt to appeal to the values of southern and conservative voters. One of these values is to be direct rather than too clever by half.
The Marijuana Policy Project, for example, clearly wants to legalize marijuana and clearly wants primary credit for such a turn of events should they ever transpire. However the organization claims that their primary purpose is to reduce the harm from marijuana, and then goes further on the application for their political fund by stating that their primary goal of ending marijuana prohibition won't happen any time soon, and they just want to keep medical patients out of jail for the time being. Balderdash! They just want to exploit the medical issue to enhance their power and funding to fight for marijuana legalization. Their objectives are fairly transparent to the general public. The Drug Policy Alliance, on the other hand, wants to far wider reform involving other drugs such as cocaine and heroin. To movement activists they appear sympathetic and supportive of calls to legalize all drugs but when it comes to the fine print they equivocate and explain that their supporters favor lots of options and do not all support legalization. But just as MPP uses the medical issue to further their real agenda, DPA uses the marijuana issue to further their real agenda of wider reform. Indeed DPA often brags about the success of marijuana ballot initiatives as evidence of their growing political power.
MPP had hoped to use the 2004 election to demonstrate its own growing political power. They targeted four congressional representatives in retribution for their failure to support the Farr Amendment that would have prevented DEA from raiding medical marijuana patients and suppliers in states with medical marijuana laws. All four were re-elected handily: Rick Renze (R-AZ), John Hostettler (R-IN), Heather Wilson (R-NM), and David Wu (D-OR). MPP promised their financial supporters that they would have a medical marijuana initiative in Arkansas and a marijuana regulation initiative on the ballot in Nevada, and that after the choice for President the biggest story on election day would be the success of marijuana ballot measures throughout the country. Yet MPP failed to make the ballot in Nevada and abandoned the Arkansas project when they realized the Presidential campaign made commercial air time more difficult to purchase.
The problem with MPP's approach to national reform is that even if it were successful at the state level it would not succeed at the national level. State level marijuana reform makes the federal policy less costly for local jurisdiction and therefore easier to live with. State level reform is important and vital on its own merits, but it is neither a viable strategy nor a realistic substitute for a direct debate over the merits of marijuana's legalization.
The problem with DPA's approach to national reform of marijuana laws is two fold. First, it depends on co-opting the success of local marijuana ballot initiatives as evidence of public support for the organization's wider "harm-reduction" agenda in an era where the success of these initiatives is in decline. Second, it depends on convincing marijuana legalization supporters to sell the American public on the idea that marijuana legalization is the first step toward adopting wider harm reduction policies, including legalization of other drugs - a hard sell in the current political climate.
There is a simple lesson in all of this and what it implies: marijuana legalization, as with any reform proposal for public debate, should be considered on its own merits. The medical marijuana issue is not a suitable substitute for a straight forward debate over marijuana's legalization; it can succeed on its own merits. The issue of marijuana's legalization is not a suitable substitute for a straight forward debate over the legalization of heroin; such a proposal should succeed of fail on its own merits.
One of the reasons marijuana legalization has failed to mature as an important public issue is the failure of the harm reduction approach of the last 15 to 20 years to tackle the issue head-on. Instead both the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance have adopted strategies and priorities that further their organizational interests and the careers of their key personnel over the public interest and the interests of marijuana legalization supporters. Out of political and financial expediency both groups have gambled the short-term future of marijuana legalization on inadequate and impotent state level measures and lost. After all, the national solution to the medical marijuana problem starts with rescheduling, and the national solution to arrests for personal marijuana use starts with a debate about legalization. Neither objective has been a priority for either group.
The success of marijuana law reform depends on building bi-partisan support for change. Instead MPP accuses opponents of the Farr Amendment, predominantly but not exclusively Republicans, as being heartless and seeking to send cancer patients to jail. When MPP failed to make the ballot in Nevada they repeatedly accused the Secretary of State of corruption for opposing their efforts. Approaching the issue with such swagger might be a viable strategy if it could be backed up with success, but according to the election returns MPP's grand strategy for 2004 has been a complete and total failure.
What is most disturbing to many marijuana legalization advocates, though, is the idea that to defeat the opponents of legalization we have to beat them at their own game and be just as cynical and nasty as they are. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland could just as easily be writing about the leaders of MPP and DPA when he recently observed that: "The professionally snide are a self-regarding elite with an iron discipline of never being impressed by anything outside their own circle of cynicism." They thought they could manipulate the national political and policy process by taking advantage of ballot access in small states; clever folks that they are they thought they found a short-cut to propel themselves into positions of power and influence. This cocky arrogance is what is responsible for the current dismal prospects for marijuana legalization. Apparently they've either never heard the story about the Ant and the Grasshopper or they've forgotten its lesson.
In any event, the greatest importance of the 2004 election for the marijuana legalization movement is that, finally, a realistic assessment of the challenges at hand can finally be confronted. It is clear that the strategies and tactics of the last 15 to 20 years have utterly failed to advance the issue of marijuana legalization and the interests of marijuana users. Why? The strategy of relying in state initiatives has run its course: the advantage of surprise has been exhausted, the list of small states with easy ballot access is nearly exhausted; and there is no evidence the electorate is receptive to distribution measures. More important, and buried in the news the week before the election, is the disturbing news that marijuana arrests for 2003 had reached an all time high.
Indeed, marijuana arrests have doubled since the early 1990s. Future columns will focus more closely on the importance of marijuana arrest trends to both evaluating prior reform efforts and the future of marijuana legalization efforts. For now it is sufficient to note that the doubling of marijuana arrests is not a sign of success for the self-labeled leaders of the reform movement but a convincing indication of their failure to adequately advance the interests of marijuana users. Only in acknowledging these failures can the movement move forward, and if that can be a result of the 2004 elections than it will indeed represent a historic turning point toward marijuana's legalization.