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John Kerry and Medical Marijuana

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  • Mar 01 2004 05:06 PM
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Posted 01 March 2004 - 05:06 PM

By Al Giordano
Source: Big Left Outside

And now… Chapter One of my promised memo on John Kerry and Drug Policy…
It comes at a particularly poignant moment, as the voters of Maine, with a huge turnout, seem to have voted, so far, in a landslide for the two clearly pro-medical marijuana candidates: Kerry, far ahead in first, and Dennis Kucinich, in a very strong third place, together got about 60 percent of the vote…

The strongest card any movement has to influence politicians is to show, concretely, that the voters back our position. In this sense Medical Marijuana - having won multiple referenda all over the United States and by landslide margins - continues to be the drug policy reform movement's electoral battering ram.

Politicians and office holders don't like to talk straight about drugs. Anybody who has tried to buttonhole a politician of any major party on drug policy knows what I'm talking about. With very few exceptions, they look at you with dread, "oh no, here comes an issue that can only get me in trouble."

I remember, in 1994, interviewing Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld in his corner office for the Boston Phoenix. I used most of that hour to push and prod him, to seek some common sense and common ground, on issues close to drug policy reform: medical marijuana, decriminalization, ending mandatory minimum sentencing, etcetera... I got nowhere. Weld (who later sent a medical marijuana bill back to the legislature to be weakened, and, ironically, later lost the Ambassadorship to Mexico because he had later signed the weakened version) didn't like my questions one bit.

Weld went from that interview to a meeting with the Senate President, the House Speaker, and the minority leaders of each chamber. As he entered the Senate President's office, he barked at his Senate Republican Leader, Brian Lees, dressed him down in front of everyone. "You told me Giordano was a good guy! He just came into my office all coked up and told me I have to legalize drugs!"

The Speaker of the House (a very humorous guy, Charlie Flaherty, who knew me a little bit better than Weld) quipped. "You're confused, Governor. For Giordano, cocaine would be a sedative!" Everybody laughed and they moved on to other agendas.

But this is the crap we have to put up with as journalists, or change agents, trying to get politicians to address these issues. Ask a politician about drugs and he starts checking to see if your eyes are red, or if you have needle marks on your arms. A few, over my career, have tried to intimidate, to menace, to infer that if I kept it up the next knock on my door would be that of the police. And that's how they treat journalists. Activists have it even worse.

But after many years of hard work and courage by many, many people, medical marijuana is already an issue they can't easily run from.

To my knowledge (correct me if I'm wrong) the U.S. Senate, where John Kerry has been for 19 years, has never had a vote on medical marijuana, except when drug warriors have tagged a ban of the District of Columbia implementing the will of its voters on larger budgetary bills.

The first time John Kerry had to deal with the issue directly was last year, on the campaign trail. He began by saying he was for medical marijuana, but I doubt he understood what that meant. In fact, last August, after one candidates' forum, when a medical marijuana patient drilled Kerry, the Marijuana Policy Project gave Kerry a deserved whack:

"On the day you take office, will you stop the DEA raids?" (medical marijuana patient Linda) Macia asked.

Kerry then offered to "clarify" his earlier remarks, saying, "My personal disposition is open to the issue of medical marijuana. I believe there is a study underway analyzing what the science is. I want to get that scientific review," before making any decisions. He said he would "put a moratorium on the raids" pending this review but would not commit to any long-term action to protect patients from arrest.

A moratorium on raids pending the results of a non-existent study ain't bad, if you believe, as I do, in results more than what a candidate says, but obviously it's not enough. The next chapter in the education of John Kerry on this issue came in an August 27th Zogby Poll of New Hampshire primary voters:

Eighty-four percent of voters said they support changing federal law to allow patients to use medical marijuana without fear of arrest, with only 14 percent in opposition and two percent not sure. Of those who said the issue would affect their votes, medical marijuana supporters outnumbered opponents by nearly seven to one.

Although the poll showed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the lead, the issue could present a major problem for him. When told that Dean had acted to block a medical marijuana bill in Vermont last year, 28 percent said they would be less likely to vote for him in the Democratic presidential primary, while only 10 percent said they would be more likely to support Dean.

Asked whether they agree more with Dean's position on medical marijuana or with that of medical marijuana supporters, only 15 percent backed Dean's claim that marijuana is not an effective medicine. Seventy-four percent said they agreed with medical marijuana supporters that marijuana is an effective medicine and that "we shouldn't be arresting people for the simple act of taking their medicine."

I don't know how those questions got into a Zogby Poll, but whomever maneuvered that one was brilliant. Politicians love polls and will follow them almost anywhere.

Three weeks later, on September 22nd, Kerry appeared to have gotten the memo. He strengthened his position, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which sponsored a very smart effort called Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana (GSMM), specifically to pull the ears of these candidates during the "retail campaigning" trap of the New Hampshire primary, a quadrennial ritual in which the candidates have to make themselves available to ambush by anyone who wants to get to them:

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) pledged an end to the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA's) raids on medical marijuana patients and providers in states that have reduced or eliminated criminal penalties for medical uses of marijuana at a town hall meeting hosted by his campaign on Saturday.

During Sen. Kerry's town hall meeting at New England College, in Henniker, GSMM Campaign Coordinator Aaron Houston asked Kerry, "Would you stop the raids, as president?" Kerry responded by saying, "Yes."

The Granite Staters-MPP axis maintained a report card, grading each of the candidates. Two days after Kerry straightened out his position, on September 24th, the project made some adjustments in his grade:

GSMM also raised U.S. Sen. John Kerry's (D-MA) grade from a "C" to a "B" after he said at a campaign stop on September 20 that he would stop DEA raids on medical marijuana patients and providers in states with medical marijuana laws. Kerry's grade remains higher than Dean's because Kerry pledged a permanent end to the raids while Dean pledged only a moratorium. "In addition, Governor Dean killed medical marijuana legislation when he was governor of Vermont, and we have to take that into account," said GSMM Campaign Coordinator Aaron Houston.

Most significantly, last October, Kerry actually did something concretely for medical marijuana patients, other than just talking about it, and he did it, together, with the other Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy:

Both U.S. senators from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, have asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to approve a groundbreaking proposal from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to manufacture marijuana for FDA-approved medical marijuana research.

At present, all U.S. medical marijuana researchers are required to obtain marijuana for medical studies from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA's marijuana, grown on a farm in Mississippi, has been criticized for its poor quality, and many observers have complained that NIDA has made it unnecessarily difficult to obtain marijuana for research, impeding studies that could document medical benefits.

In an Oct. 20 letter to DEA Administrator Karen Tandy, Sens. Kennedy and Kerry criticized NIDA's "unjustified monopoly on the production of marijuana for legitimate medical research." They noted, "Federal law makes clear that the ... bulk manufacture of Schedule I and II substances must be provided `under adequately competitive conditions.' ... The current lack of such competition may well result in the production of lower-quality research-grade marijuana, which in turn jeopardizes important research."

January 7, the Granite Staters group issued its final report card marking where each candidate stood.

The best candidate, by far, was Dennis Kucinich, unequivocating, the only candidate for president this year who consistently, and unafraid, was happy to talk about drug policy and take the right position. He got a well-deserved A+ on the issue.

But watch how Kerry, less educated on the issue as of last summer, responded to a serious and smart citizen campaign: After months of scrutiny and many exchanges on the campaign trail in New Hampshire with medical marijuana patients, he moved up from a grade of C, to a B, and to his final score: A-.

The next best was General Wesley Clark, who got a B+.

And Al Sharpton, close behind, got a B.

The low scores of the rest of the Democrats who remain in this race, and of the incumbent Republican, though, show us two very ominous facts to keep in mind.

First, it's still very hard to convince politicians to support even a winning drug policy reform issue like medical marijuana.

Second, how unprecedented it is for this movement to have a candidate emerging who is the first presumptive nominee for president to ever support allowing patients access to this lifesaving medicine.

Those of us who advocate a change in the drug laws, and especially those of us who have ever needed this plant as medicine, can take a moment to pause and ponder here how far we have come.

But, at the same time…

When Howard Dean, who should know better, gets just a grade of D- on something as basically humanitarian as medical marijuana, when criminal defense lawyer John Edwards, who should know better, gets a failing grade of F, and finds himself sharing the bottomfeeder's category with George W. Bush, it's a sign of how far we have to go to convince national politicians to do the right thing even on the easiest, no-brainer, drug policy reform issue of all.

Which is why on New Hampshire primary night I shared the enthusiasm of the Marijuana Policy Project which declared Kerry's NH victory to be a victory for medical marijuana patients.

What MPP and its Granite Staters group accomplished with John Kerry, walking a poorly educated candidate through the medical marijuana issue and, step by step, bringing him to the point where he not only offered words, but also actions, is indeed an impressive victory.

The way that MPP did it - not freaking out over the apparent setback of midsummer, but, rather, staying the course, ploddingly pushing, with calm and without falling into traditional activist traps of "freaking out over any bad news," also sets up MPP as a very strong interlocutor for the medical marijuana issue with a Kerry presidency.

A very informative link - really, it's must-reading for activists who want to influence candidates - is the complete collection of MPP press releases as it pushed and pulled the candidates, well worth reviewing as a model of how to do it right. I congratulate everybody at MPP and the Granite Staters group for what they accomplished which was nothing short of historic: Presuming that Kerry wins the nomination, he will be the first major party presidential candidate on the side of the patients who need marijuana for medicine.

Next in this series: John Kerry and the larger issue of marijuana, beyond the medical issue. There's a lot there, and the soundtrack goes back decades.


February 7, 2004

John Kerry and Drug Policy 101

It's become clear to everyone.

John Kerry might well be the next president of the United States.

So what does - or can - that mean for drug policy?

For my friends and allies in the drug policy reform movement, there will be unique opportunities to change the direction of the "war on drugs," but there will also some problems ahead because activists are not always good strategists and can sometimes be their own worst enemies.

John Kerry, likewise, can sometimes be his own worst enemy, as we saw during much of the 2003 stage of this campaign.

Needless to say, I've known John Kerry and his people for more than two decades, and I've known, and been part of, the drug policy reform movement for as long. And yet, as a journalist, and not a politician or activist, I remain a bit of an outside agitator to both camps. They both need to be "toughened up" for the marathon to come.

The first step is that we must all act with accurate information.

And so I have decided to write a kind of primer, a memo, with your help, via this blog:

John Kerry and Drug Policy 101

Bankers have a policy called "know your client." Journalists and activists (too often prone to superficial, knee-jerk, reactions to politics, which clouds their strategic thinking) need a similar policy: "Know your president."

The first chapters of this memo (I show you the draft Table of Contents because I know you'll have suggestions for documents and links to flesh it out and amend it, and this shall be, "bloggie-style," a participatory work in progress) are:

Kerry, The Good…

1. Kerry and Medical Marijuana
2. Kerry and Marijuana
3. Kerry, Mandatory Minimum Sentences, and "Crime Bills"
4. Kerry and What He Already Knows About the Drug Economy
In those areas, above, a Kerry presidency begins head and shoulders above those of all other rivals except Dennis Kucinich.

But, alas, that's not the whole story. There's also a lot of bad mixed in there…

Kerry, The Bad…

5. Kerry as Overzealous Prosecutor in anything defined as "War"
6. Kerry as Social Moralist
7. Kerry and the Drug Plane Shoot-downs
8. Kerry and his Rand Beers Problem
9. Kerry and Plan Colombia: The Bad
Kerry: Where the coin is still in the air and needs some wind from below…

10. Kerry and Plan Colombia: The Potential for Good
11. Kerry's Environmental Passions and Drug Policy Dilemmas
12. Kerry's Budget-Balancing Priorities and Drug Policy Dilemmas
And the Epilogue, which is really the Prologue to the action phase…
13. Mistakes that the "Drug Policy Reformers" Had Better Not Repeat This Time

As he took office in 1977, President Jimmy Carter was moving toward decriminalizing marijuana. The "movement" was on the verge of victory. The story of what happened to put the breaks on that reform has hung as a dark cloud over all drug policy reform efforts since. The New York Times Book Review said that, "the drug law movement vanished up Peter Bourne's nose." Carter's top drug policy advisor, Peter Bourne, though, tells a different story. He insists that he didn't snort cocaine, as journalist Jack Anderson had reported, but that that a leading marijuana legalization activist, angry over Carter's "Paraquat" policy, cynically claimed that he did to the press.

Regardless, because the truth is long lost and probably somewhere between the two versions, the fact that "the movement" overreacted to some early mistakes (in this case the use of the herbicide Paraquat against Mexican marijuana fields by the Carter administration), and reacted in a knee-jerk, non-strategic, fashion, entombed drug policy reform for the next quarter century.

While, obviously, the leaders that made those mistakes sincerely regret them by now, and this is certainly far too late for recriminations, it now becomes important, however delicate and embarrassing the history, to educate a new generation as to those mistakes so that nobody repeats them this time around. And part of the challenge is to neutralize a structural problem for the movement: There are people running around Washington claiming to "represent" the drug reform movement, who, in truth, have no grassroots constituency, or ability to work with the next presidential administration, at all. They might have been benign when it came to bashing Bush's extremism. But they're ill equipped to deal with a Kerry presidency in ways that will bring the cause forward.

The drug policy reform movement needs a new team on the field in Washington, and a radically new game plan, because we're moving from defense to offense.

The best thing I can do, as a journalist who openly supports reform of drug policy, and who is read widely by both sides of the coming dance - the drug reformers on one side, John Kerry and his organization on the other, not to mention the great mass of sympathizers with each side that somewhat overlap - is to shine sunlight on the entire process. There are going to be some bumps in the road, and some flags thrown on both sides. Until somebody more effective for this thankless job comes along, I'm declaring myself the referee, if only because my whistle easily reaches the ears of both teams, and has the respect of the fans in the bleachers who are the authentic referees in this championship game. Play ball!

Source: Big Left Outside
Author: Al Giordano
Published: February 8, 2004
Copyright: 2004 Al Giordano
Contact: al@bigleftoutside.com
Website: http://www.bigleftoutside.com/

Related Articles & Web Sites:

Marijuana Policy Project
http://www.mpp.org/

Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana
http://www.granitestaters.com/
Replies (2)

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Posted 18 October 2004 - 03:28 PM

thank you 4 the info

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Posted 18 October 2004 - 09:48 PM

Still, one factor the article doesn't cover at all is Nader's stance on all of the issues. He's all for an end to the failing drug war. He would legalize marijuana, plain and simple. The only problem is that most people won't take the time to understand how that would make more sense than prohibition. So, sadly, the country takes very small baby-steps towards change. Medical marijuana is where it will start. Kerry's moving in the right direction, but he hasn't reached home yet.




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