Dems on Drugs: The Presidential Contenders and Their Drug Policies 6/6/03

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With the November 2004 presidential election now less than 18 months away, potential Democratic challengers to President Bush are emerging from their lairs, sniffing the wind and trying to plot a course that will take them to their party's nomination. As they tack left or veer right in search of winning issues, staking out positions they hope will win them votes, the candidates will have to move beyond such bold stands as being for homeland security and the family and against terrorism. For drug reformers, of course, the question is where do they stand on drug policy?

This week, DRCNet looks at the records and the platforms of the nine announced Democratic contenders. For those seeking a refuge from reflex drug war and law and order rhetoric, there is not much positive there. While one candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), has presented a startlingly progressive drug policy platform -- the most progressive ever articulated by a serious major party candidate -- several others are more or less notorious drug warriors, while some have had little at all to say on the issue. What is especially striking is how far out of the political limelight drugs and drug policy have fallen, at least in the eyes of the Democratic pack. None, except Kucinich, make drug policy an important plank in their platforms, and several don't even list crime in general among their key issues.

According to the conventional wisdom, the strongest candidates at this stage are Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, former House Minority Leader Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and good-looking but largely untested junior North Carolina Senator John Edwards. Kucinich and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean form a second tier, along with Florida Sen. Bob Graham and New York black activist Rev. Al Sharpton, while former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun is viewed as an "any black candidate but Sharpton" contender.

Drug reform groups are busy plotting how best to influence the Democratic challengers and take advantage of the campaign to advance the reform agenda. Next week, DRCNet will look at the reform movement's thinking. This week, it's on to the candidates.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean ( makes no mention of drugs or crime as key issues on his website. But an earlier version of his web site -- reproduced at -- contains the following illuminating Q&A:

Q: I was wondering what your drug policies are?

A: I am in favor of really hammering dealers. You know they are merchants of death and destruction and misery. I believe the rest of the drug problem -- the casual users -- is a public health problem, not a criminal problem, and we ought to approach it using a medical model.

I particularly like something we're starting to experiment with in Vermont and which is further along in some states which is drug courts where when drugs are the problem the court has wide discretion to sentence people to rehabilitation. As a physician -- I was trained as a physician -- you know, sentencing people to rehabilitation when they quote-unquote didn't want to go was something that you didn't do, but you know now I think the drug problem is so serious that it's smarter frankly to send casual users of serious drugs to rehab rather than jail. And it's cheaper in the long run. Even though they will fail rehabilitation three or four or five times, that's what you have to understand about substance abusers. From a medical point of view, as a physician, and also as a governor, I think we ought to treat drug abuse a public health problem.

I'm not in favor of decriminalizing drugs. The reason is it sends a very bad message I think to young people, we already have a serious problem with the drugs that are legal, alcohol and tobacco, and adding a third drug, a series of drugs, is not a good idea. But I do think we ought to use a medical model and not a criminal model for most cases.

Dean is also notorious among drug reformers for opposing medical marijuana legislation in Vermont and for his opposition to methadone maintenance programs. Dean has repeatedly said that he would reconsider medical marijuana if the Food and Drug Adminstration were to declare it safe and effective. In other words, as the Rutland Herald noted last year, Dean would support medical marijuana "when pigs fly."

On the other hand, as Vermont governor, Dean supported successful 1999 legislation establishing needle exchange programs in the state. But neither he nor his successor has encouraged the legislature to fund the two existing programs.

Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana (, a Marijuana Policy Project web site that rates candidates on their stands on medical marijuana, gave Dean an "F+," the lowest grade given to any Democratic candidate (but still half a grade better than it scored President Bush).

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards ( includes "fighting crime" as part of his agenda and record, but makes no direct mention of drugs or drug policy. In his crime platform, Edwards supports increasing the number of police officers on the beat, "holding parole violators accountable," and increasing penalties for drunk driving. He calls for increases in spending for parole and probation and spending on programs that assist just-released prisoners in order to avoid repeat offending.

Edwards has generally avoided the issue of drug policy, though in a speech last year at Georgetown University he called for more frequent drug testing of the more than 4 million Americans on parole or probation. Punishment for those caught using should be "swift and automatic," he said. In that same speech, he called state prison early-release programs "a festering problem."

During that same speech, a student asked Edwards about the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision. Should it be repealed? the student asked. "I don't know the answer to that off the top of my head," Edwards said. "I'll have to think about that."

But there is no indication he has. He has thought about medical marijuana, however, especially as he campaigned in California last week. On May 29, he told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I wouldn't change the [marijuana] law now, but I would set up a committee to see if pain relief is different with marijuana." And he approves of the current raids in California. "It's the job of the Justice Department to enforce the law as it presently exists," said Edwards. He has pledged to keep an open mind and listen to opposing views on the issue. Edwards earned a "D" grade from Granite Staters.

Rep. Richard Gephardt ( does not list crime or drugs among his key issues, although in his February 19 speech announcing his candidacy he pledged, among other things, to keep up a strong defense against "manifold new dangers from global terror, to the recklessness of rogue dictators like Saddam Hussein, to international crime and drug-running that rips at the very fabric of freedom."

Similarly, very little about Gephardt shows up in any drug policy archives. A supporter of federal asset forfeiture reform in 1999, he vowed to attempt to fix loopholes in that law but apparently forgot about it. Gephardt has no public record of statements on medical marijuana, although he joined an overwhelming majority in voting for a House resolution condemning it in 1998.

Gephardt earned a "D" grade from Granite Staters.

Former Florida governor and current Senator Bob Graham ( has staked out a hard-line drug- and crime-fighting platform. In his position statement on criminal justice issues, Graham brags that he is a fervent supporter of police, judges, and prosecutors in their fight against crime. He proudly claims credit for a "pioneering state-federal partnership to confront illegal drug smuggling and immigration" and pushing through Florida's "first minimum-mandatory sentencing law for drug smugglers," as well as reinstituting the death penalty in the state.

When it comes to his federal anti-drug activity, Graham's accomplishments speak for themselves: "In Washington, Graham has been a leader in beefing up the federal government's role in the fight against illegal drugs, including passing the death penalty for drug kingpins, creating a new High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, expanding the Defense Department's involvement in counter narcotics programs, targeting funds for drug eradication and crop substitution in Latin America, and criminalizing the deadly club drug Ecstasy," his position paper notes. "In addition to stiffening penalties for its production and possession, he has obtained more than $5 million to educate young people about the dangers of Ecstasy. If elected, Graham promises to provide "assistance to states so they can build new prisons."

Regarding medical marijuana, ABC News reported in February that "Graham does not support legalizing marijuana. His spokeswoman said he hasn't taken a position on whether states should be allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes, though she said Graham 'generally disfavors' federal preemption of state law."

Graham's hint at a states' rights position earned him a "C-" from Granite Staters.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ( appears to be playing both sides of the drug policy fence in his position statement on "Stopping Crime and Guaranteeing Homeland Security." While he calls for expanded funding of drug treatment and prevention and decries racial profiling, he is quick to point out that he is a former prosecutor in favor of "tough laws" and "an early advocate of laws that cracked down on international drug dealers and money laundering."

Author of the federal Community Oriented Policing System (COPS) act that paid for an additional 100,000 police officers, Kerry burnishes his law-and-order and anti-drug credentials even more with his paragraph on fighting illegal drugs. "In order to deal with the problem of illegal drugs in this country, efforts must be focused on keeping drugs out of the country and our communities, as well as reducing demand for illegal drugs," he writes. "John Kerry supports aggressively targeting traffickers and dealers, as well as making a commitment to sufficiently fund drug prevention and treatment programs."

Kerry made a name for himself in the 1980s investigating the contra-cocaine connection that developed out of the covert US military intervention against Sandinista Nicaragua, but has been a supporter of the US military intervention in Colombia. That's not necessarily a contradiction, because if there's one thing Kerry is against, it's drug trafficking. He elaborated on that theme in his 1997 book, "The New War: The Web of Crime That Threatens America's Security, which included the following blurb from drug reform nemesis Joe Califano: "A riveting and penetrating look at the number one problem in international crime -- illicit drugs." Among other things, "The New War" called for expanding US-style asset forfeiture and surveillance to other countries.

Kerry himself makes clear in the book that under a Kerry presidency, the war on drugs will finally get serious. "The most serious task of all, however, remains our alone. The reason is clear. The greatest deficit in our fight against crime is our demand for drugs. Almost 70 percent of all our crime is drug related. Put simply: We are not losing the war on drugs -- we have yet to fight a war!"

Kerry angered drug reformers in 1994 by attacking Colombian prosecutor general Gustavo de Greiff for his pro-legalization stand in the wake of his nation's bout with drug lord Pablo Escobar ( More recently Kerry disappointed reform-minded Bay Staters who had written him asking his support for repealing the drug provision of the Higher Education Act; Kerry wrote back expressing his support for keeping the drug provision.

Kerry receives a "C" grade on medical marijuana from Granite Staters, primarily because he's done or said nothing one way or the other.

Former Cleveland mayor and US Rep. Dennis Kucinich ( was the first candidate to endorse medical marijuana -- despite voting against it in 1998 -- and his drug policy platform, drafted with assistance from Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access ( and Mike Gray of Common Sense for Drug Policy (, is the boldest critique of drug war orthodoxy ever heard in presidential campaign circles. It is worth reproducing in its entirety:

A safe, free and just America is undermined, not bolstered, by the costly and ineffective War on Drugs. While well-intentioned, this misguided policy -- which emphasizes criminalization over treatment -- has led to increased violent crime, misdirected resources of law enforcement and restricted Constitutional liberties.

Despite billions spent yearly on the drug war, addiction is up. Our country must rethink a policy that produces many casualties but benefits only the prison-industrial complex. Nonviolent drug offenders often receive Draconian sentences, tearing apart families.

Racial bias in the enforcement of drug laws is pervasive. According to a Human Rights Watch report based on FBI statistics, blacks were arrested on drug charges at nearly five times the rate of whites. Drug use is consistent across racial and socioeconomic lines -- yet in the state of New York, for example, 94 percent of incarcerated drug offenders are Latino or African-American, mostly from poor communities.

Countries in Europe and elsewhere are turning away from failed policies. They are treating addiction as a medical problem and are seeing significant reductions in crime and violence -- with fewer young people becoming involved with addictive drugs in the first place. In our country, due to misplaced priorities and resources, only one bed exists for every ten people who apply for drug treatment. Addiction is a medical and moral problem that should be treated by professionals, not dumped on the criminal justice system.

Most Americans believe that medical marijuana should be available to help relieve the suffering of seriously ill patients, and eight states have passed laws to allow it. But the Bush administration has harassed medical marijuana patients in an effort to assert federal authority. This is another aspect of the drug war that should be ended.

Kucinich wins the only "A" for medical marijuana from Granite Staters.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman ( does not list drug policy or crime among his issues of concern, but uses his civil rights plank to oppose racial profiling and note his co-sponsorship of a bill requiring data collection on the practice "as a first step to stopping it." He also emphasizes his history of "fighting for voting rights," but makes no mention of restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentences. In his health plank, he touts his sponsorship of a bill that would require parity in the insurance coverage of physical and mental disorders, a move that could lead to increased access to treatment for drug abusers.

Lieberman has been a strong, consistent supporter of the US military intervention in Colombia, apparently for a combination of mercenary and ideological reasons. Helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky is based in Connecticut; it won big contracts to supply choppers to Colombia. Lieberman publicly acknowledged that voting for more Colombia aid would be "good for Sikorsky."

Lieberman also supported a 1998 Senate resolution condemning efforts to legalize medical marijuana, a move that earned him a "D-" from Granite Staters.

Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun's web site ( contains nothing about her positions on drug policy or crime issues. That is much in keeping with her record as a one-term senator who didn't do much of anything. Moseley-Braun did write to a constituent in 1994 that she supported decriminalizing marijuana and wrote in Parade magazine in 1996 she suggested "decriminalizing all but wholesale distribution" of all drugs. But she never acted on those words.

She received a "?" from the perplexed people at Granite Staters.

New York activist Al Sharpton ( has not yet gotten around to releasing any position papers or issue statements, although he does warn that individual liberties, the system of checks and balances, and the separation of powers are all "in danger" and "now is the time to rediscover the Constitution."

Sharpton, who has never held elected office, comes out of a background of controversial black activism in New York state. As a black activist he has been an increasingly fervent critic of the New York Rockefeller laws, police abuses related to the war on drugs, and mandatory minimum sentences. Sharpton harshly attacked then Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York City prosecutors over the police killing of Patrick Dorismond. Sharpton also lent support to the 2000 Millenium Marijuana March.

In recent weeks, Sharpton has led the chorus of critics over the death of Alberta Spruill, who died of heart failure after her home was mistakenly raided by an NYPD drug squad, and has stepped up his criticism of the Rockefeller drug laws.

Sharpton received a grade of "I" for incomplete from Granite Staters, which suspects he would support medical marijuana, but notes that he has never said a word about it.

-- END --
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Issue #290, 6/6/03 Editorial: Courage and Perseverance | Thousands Rally in NYC to Demand Repeal of Rockefeller Drug Laws | Medical Marijuana Cultivator Rosenthal Sentenced to One Day, Plus Probation | DEA Uses RAVE Act Threats to Block Montana NORML/SSDP Benefit | Dems on Drugs: The Presidential Contenders and Their Drug Policies | In a Strong Reversal, Congress Prohibits Drug Czar from Running Ads Against Ballot Measures and Candidates | Newsbrief: Texas Governor Signs Bill Freeing Tulia 14 | Newsbrief: Sentencing Reform -- No in Oklahoma | Newsbrief: Sentencing Reform -- Yes in Missouri | Newsbrief: Feds Reject MPP Complaint Against Drug Czar | Newsbrief: The Next Prohibition? Surgeon General Supports Banning Tobacco | Newsbrief: Belgian Marijuana Decriminalization Now in Effect | Newsbrief: DEA Can't Kidnap People in Other Countries, Federal Court Rules | The Reformer's Calendar

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