How to Make the Loyal Opposition Part of the Political Mainstream
appearing at pp 389-391 in
Strategies for Change New Directions in Drug Policy
The Drug Policy Foundation Press
Arnold S. Trebach and Kevin Zeese editors
At an April 1991 New York State Libertarian Party convention, drug policy scholar and Cato Institute associate James Ostrowski confirmed a suspicion of mine that had been developing for the past year. He claimed that the drug policy reform movement has crested and that it would require a new wave of activism to rekindle interest in the topic.
From the perspective of media attention to the subject,Mr. Ostrowski would appear to be correct. Although polls in the late 1980s consistently named drugs as the most critical problem for the country to deal with, more traditional concerns, such as foreign policy and the economy, have overtaken drugs both in the polls and on the air. The current lack of attention paid to the subject is a far cry from the hey-day of 1988 (which marked Baltimore Mayor Schmoke's historic statement to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Ted Koppel's town meeting and Congressional hearings on legalization.
There are hints of renewal within the chaos of drug policy reform. From books by(three in the past year) to ballots (Proposition P in San Francisco) to the burnt out areas of L.A., drugs are still recognized as a significant public policy issue. More important, they were a fresh reminder of the failure of the status quo.
But we can no longer rely on the environmental factors that sparked the last wave of interest in drug policy reform - a high level of public salience and high visibility figures willing to discuss the issue. A new strategy is necessary to catalyze public support for reform.
It's fine for us to discuss cocaine and heroin legalization as possibilities for a future drug policy. But it's not going to happen, not in the near future at any rate. It might be possible to convince a substantial minority of the wisdom of cocaine and heroin legalization, but only at immense cost and I doubt that we would be able to convince enough of the public to change the drug laws, which must be our eventual goal.
We need to focus on attitudes that are already held by a significant proportion of the the public, including:
1) The need for a shift in emphasis from law enforcement to education and treatment.
Harvard professor Mark Kleiman does a good job at delineating the confusion surrounding persuasion, help and control, as he puts it, in Against Excess. Despite concerns over objectives and effectiveness, even libertarians will admit that there will always be ignorance about and problems with drugs. Promoting the therapeutic potential of ibogaine would help ease many qualms about the increased availability of drugs. It would be a great coup for the forces of reform if we were able to take credit for making available a treatment that has been suppressed by agents of the United States pharmacracy for decades. Unfortunately, the media and the Food and Drug Administration, not usually our two greatest allies, seem to have caught on quicker than some of us reformers.
2) The need for more aggressive AIDS prevention.
San Francisco voters passed Proposition O, calling upon the state legislature to repeal laws prohibiting the sale of needles without a prescription. The National Commission on AIDS recommended removing legal barriers to the purchase and possession of injection equipment. Needle exchange activists around the country have been acquitted of criminal charges.
And perhaps most significantly, the success of Hartford's needle exchange program has caused new York City Mayor David Dinkins and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangal to reconsider their opposition to needle exchange. This was quite a reversal from 1990, when I was told by a member of the Mayor's Study Group on Drug Abuse that legalization and needle exchange were taboo topics.
3) Medical Marijuana
This issue affects people with many different illnesses, and appeals to the compassionate nature of even those who oppose recreational marijuana use. On Nov. 5, 1991, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition P, recommending that the state of California and the California Medical Association restore hemp medical preperations to the list of available medicines. Let's work to convince the California state legislature to enact Proposition O and P into law.
In addition to these positions, which already enjoy substantial public support, there are two issues which we do need to change the public's opinion about:
1) The radically altered nature of a deregulated drug market.
In every debate I have seen on the drug issue, an unstated premise of opponents of reform is that the dominant forms of drug use would intensify. While we cannot predict its exact nature, we need to assert the radical impact of reform on the forms of drugs that would be available under a more liberal drug regime. There would be no doubt that a significant market share would be ceded by refined and synthetic forms (i.e. cocaine hydrochloride and base, and heroin, and fentanyl) to plant forms (i.e. coca and opium products). The resultant indirect form of administration, decrease in potency and improvement in quality control would lead to a dramatic improvement in the health of drug using populations.
2) Hemp for humanity instead of marijuana legalization.
One of the classic strategies of the advertising world has been to follow up a failed campaign by repositioning the product. Advocates of marijuana reform should learn from the lessons of Madison Avenue. Marijuana use has been on the decline for over a decade, and interest in drugs and drug policy has shifted to more potent pharmaceuticals and prescriptions for change. At the same time, everyone has become an environmentalist, and great concern has been expressed about the future of small farms. It's become clear that NORML's approach to the problem is not working. the generals of our loyal opposition ought to pay attention to the guerrilla soldiers of the Hemp Tour and the enthusiastic response of those who learn about the illustrious past and bright future of this plant.
But what about the best vehicle to deliver these messages to the public and the government? Our current approach is centered on 501(c)3 non profit educational organizations. These have been successful in attracting media recognition and in per-suing reform through the legal system. However, this has not bee enough to reverse the generally hostile attitude of the media, and the legal battles have been limited in scope and extremely lengthy in duration.
It is in the area of political action that these organizations have really failed to make an impact. This is due to their tax status (although IRS regulations do allow a limited percentage of revenues to be used for lobbying), their legal and academic bases of support and perhaps most important, the enormous amount of money necessary for effective political actions.
Candidates for public office have been reluctant to deal with the issue of drug policy reform, and can be expected to do so until we build public support for our positions. It's a cliche, but one that bears repeating: politicians are followers, not leaders (present company excepted of course). Libertarian candidates can always be counted on for support, but many supporters of drug policy reform are reluctant to embrace the rest of the Libertarian platform.
Initiatives seem to offer more of a chance of success than candidate campaigns. States with the initiative process could do well by trying to focus on some of the issues above. However, recent attempts in this area have been marred by the same lack of money and professionalism that has plagued other candidates and organizations.
This leaves us with the prospect of a lobbying organization. This is our best bet for accomplishing political change. This type of organization could focus on defeating bad bills and nurturing the seeds of change, instead of hoping that educational activities will motivate isolated individuals to stem the tide of repression on their own. Individual support is essential for financing and communicating with legislators, but coordination is necessary to track events and devise effective responses.
A lobby would also be better able to form alliances with other political supporters of our agenda, who have themselves learned the power of political action committees and lobbyists. It's hard to mobilize people around public education. We need specific goals that can be operationalized to measure their success or failure.
Although I believe a lobby would be the best organization to achieve our goals, sheer inertia and lack of funds may prevent it from happening. there are several ways we can improve our political effectiveness through existing organizations.
Probably the most important thing we can do is stop viewing other drug policy reform organizations as competitors. At a meeting at the national NORML officie, I heard references to NORML people or CAN people. While certain people may belong to one or another organization, we should view organizations by their mission, not their membership.
We should actively share information between organizations, especially membership and prospect lists, with agreed upon security and privacy precautions.
We must reaffirm that our ultimate goal is to change the drug laws, and to that end provide activists at the state and local levels with the information and support they need to accomplish their goals. Almost as important is focusing on defeating bad laws and initiatives (i.e. Proposition 2 in Alaska). Until we're consistently winning these battles, we can't hope to pass our own agenda.
We might consider pooling our resources to fund media and lobbying initiatives that would not be feasible for individual organizations. And until we can alter the drug laws, we should publicize the right of jurors to acquit drug offenders through the use of the jury veto (also known as "jury nullification"). Fully informed juries played a key role in undermining Prohibition and setting the stage for the passage of the 21st Amendment.
Washington is a seductive environment - not only for those in power, but for the loyal opposition as well. The Beltway mentality has a way of detaching those caught in its grasp from the grassroots of support that supply them with money and power. If we are to succeed, those of us in the capital must judge themselves by the peace they can conclude - partially fought and negotiated in Washington, but for the rest of the country too - and given the predominance of the United States in international drug policy, the rest of the planet as well.
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