2008 Election Round-Up

Voters who want marijuana reform should be mindful of one thing this year: change is needed in Washington, DC.

Twelve years after passage of Prop. 215, California has done everything it can to allow legal access to medical cannabis without a change in federal policy. A truly legal distribution system remains politically impossible so long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The Republican mis-administration of George W. Bush and Drug Czar John Walters has done everything possible to quash marijuana reform, block research (including a vaporizer study proposed by Cal NORML), ignore scientific evidence, and waste federal law enforcement resources raiding, prosecuting and imprisoning medical marijuana offenders.

While both leading presidential candidates are promising change, neither has discussed changing America’s misguided drug policy, much less decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. Nonetheless, there are significant differences between the candidates. Barack Obama, who admits to having experimented with marijuana and cocaine in his youth, represents the post-60s generation. As a state legislator, he supported hemp and decriminalization. More recently, Obama has repeatedly pledged to end federal raids on medical marijuana, indicating that he favors some form of regulated pharmaceutical distribution. In contrast, John McCain, who still calls marijuana a gateway drug, represents the pre-60s generation. A veteran drug warrior, McCain has consistently advocated tough anti-drug legislation. Above all, he has refused to endorse medical marijuana, saying that it “is not something the ‘people’ want.” Ironically, despite his anti-drug stance, McCain is married to a beer-mongering heiress who illegally abused prescription drugs.

The running mates for both candidates are disappointing. Sen. Joe Biden was Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the height of the drug war, when he led the passage of repressive anti-drug measures such as mandatory minimums and the Rave Act. In his defense, it could be said that any other chairman would have done the same in the political climate of the era. Since then, Biden has reversed himself somewhat on mandatory minimums now that they have become controversial. On the positive side, Biden fiercely defended other civil liberties, especially the right to privacy. Still, Biden is another member of the pre-60s generation who just doesn’t understand pot.

The same can’t be said for Sarah Palin, who freely admits to having inhaled. In her defense, Palin argued that it was legal in Alaska to do so. As Governor, however, she supported the state’s ongoing court effort to overturn Alaska’s decrim law. Unfortunately, Palin is bound by a socially conservative ideology that does not respect personal choice or bodily freedom. In the familiar pattern of conservative hypocrisy, scandal sheets allege that Palin’s pot use was more extensive than advertised, and that her family has had a serious relationship with other drugs as well.

Given the record of recent administrations, there are ample grounds for cynicism about both major parties. Voters interested in registering a protest have a choice of third-party candidates who are openly critical of the war on pot. These include Libertarian Bob Barr, who was formerly a strident drug warrior but has undergone a seemingly St. Paul-like conversion since leaving Congress; Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney, who had a long record of supporting marijuana reform during her days in Congress; and perennial candidate Ralph Nader, this year running on the Peace and Freedom ticket, who has included marijuana law reform in his pot-pourri of policy nostrums.

When the final returns are in, it will make a difference who is elected this year. Although no one expects Obama to make marijuana a priority issue, the record suggests that his administration should be open to objectively considering the scientific evidence, which argues strongly for a change in policy. Hopefully, this will mean the lifting of federal research restrictions, an end to DEA raids, and eventual rescheduling of marijuana. As for Sen. McCain, his accession is apt to mean four more years of the same: more DEA raids, arrests and prosecutions, more regulatory obstructionism, and continued Republican control over judicial appointments and the Department of Justice, whose baleful influence was recently demonstrated in the federal crackdown on Santa Barbara.

Yes on Prop 5
Aside from the presidential choice, the most important issue on the California ballot is Proposition 5, the Non-Violent Offenders Rehabilitation Act. NORA essentially strengthens Prop. 36 by expanding drug treatment and protecting non-violent offenders, including probationers and parolees, from imprisonment for drug use or possession. Although largely targeted at hard drugs, Prop. 5 also includes a helpful provision downgrading possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. Fines would be tightly capped at $100, with no more than $100 additional court costs (currently, these can total $273). Cal. NORML has long advocated lowering marijuana to an infraction so as to protect users from a criminal record and the need for a court appearance, and we endorse Prop 5.

State Legislature and Congress
In legislative races, there is not much to choose from this year. Because of California’s partisan districting, scarcely any races are competitive. At the state level, the Democratic leadership of the State Assembly and Senate has been laudably supportive of marijuana reform, while the Republicans have been overwhelmingly hostile. In the past session, Democrats delivered 150 votes in favor of cannabis reform bills and 10 votes against, while Republicans delivered 8 votes for reform and 96 against. Special credit goes to Assemblyman Mark Leno for having sponsored bills to legalize hemp and protect Prop. 215 patients from employment discrimination, though both bills were vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Honorable mention also to Assemblywoman Lori Soldaña (San Diego) and outgoing Sen. Carole Migden (SF) for their bills opposing the federal DEA raids.

In Congress, the partisan breakdown has been similar. The state’s Democrats voted 27-4 in favor of the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment to cut off DEA funding for medical marijuana raids, while Republicans voted 3-15 against. Special credit goes to Republican Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach for bucking his party to co-sponsor the amendment. Rohrabacher was joined by fellow Orange County Republicans John Campbell (Newport Beach) and Ed Royce (Fullerton). In contrast, only 4 of California's 33 Democrats voted against Hinchey-Rohrabacher: Dennis Cardoza (Merced), Jim Costa (Fresno), Joe Baca (San Bernardino), and freshman Jerry McNerney (Pleasanton). McNerney has since switched in support of Prop. 215. On the Democratic side, special credit goes to Rep. Barbara Lee for co-sponsoring Rep. Frank’s federal decriminalization bill.

The most interesting Congressional race is California's 4th District (E. Sacramento and Roseville), where voters have the rare choice between two sympathetic candidates: Republican State Senator Tom McClintock, a libertarian-leaning right winger who has supported Prop. 215 (though opposing Mark Leno's bill to ban employment discrimination against patients); and Democrat Charlie Brown, who is privately reported to be supportive but has not spoken publicly on the issue.

In local races, a strong pro-reform candidate is running for the at-large seat on Oakland City Council: Rebecca Kaplan, who helped organize the city's Measure Z "tax and regulate" initiative.

In Los Angeles, ex-Assemblyman Paul Koretz, a strong Prop 215 advocate, is running for City Council in District 5.

In Mendocino County, reformers are backing Estelle Paley Clifton for District 2 Supervisor over the widely distrusted John McCowen, who sponsored anti-pot Measure B as well as Ukiah's pot odor nuisance ordinance.

See a voting report on the California legislature.