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Journalist and author Richard Reeves, when I talked to him in the early
1980s on a book-flogging tour, expressed fascination that the mainstream
media — presumably the people closest to important events — during his
lifetime had missed most of the significant political trends until they were already well-established — from the beginning of the civil rights movement to the rise of Goldwaterism to opposition to the Vietnam war to
the late-1970s tax rebellion. I suspect they have also missed the most significant trend to be discerned from the 1998 elections.
Amid fruitless speculation on whether the midterm elections were a referendum on Clinton, a slap to insufficiently conservative and hapless
Republicans or a new life for a previously dispirited Democratic Party, the
talking heads on election night usually found a stray second or two to note
that medical marijuana initiatives had passed in several states. It was generally treated as a mildly amusing resurgence of aging hippieism, chalked up as an inexplicable anomaly before the experts moved on to more
comfortable material like the meager distinctions between the two major parties.
Yet the results just might portend a seismic shift in the way American
voters think about drug policy. On Election Day 1998 every single ballot
measure that promised some kind of reform in our draconian and ineffective
drug laws — from limited medical use of marijuana to decriminalization of
personal, recreational marijuana use to an end to jail time for simple possession of even “hard” drugs — passed, and passed by comfortable margins.
These results came in the face of vehement and scornful opposition from
almost every establishment entity imaginable, from the official federal drug warriors (often using tax money to try to influence the elections) to
an overwhelming majority of elected officials of both major parties to three former U.S. presidents. Nor was this a “stealth” campaign for a single initiative sneaked onto the ballot in a single state. Voters in places as diverse as Arizona, Oregon and the District of Columbia voted for
whatever reform initiative was placed before them.
In Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, who had made a point of criticizing the ineffectiveness of the drug war without actually calling for legalization,
won a stunning victory. In California, Dan Lungren, who had carefully positioned himself as the staunchest of drug warriors, was defeated soundly. None of the members of Congress who had voted against a House resolution (clearly designed to influence voting on medical marijuana initiatives) — declaring that medical marijuana was a dangerous figment of
wishful thinking — paid for their intelligence at the ballot box. Libertarian Republican Ron Paul of Texas, who has called for a complete end to the drug war, won by a comfortable 55 percent.
This election showed that when it comes to the drug war the American people no longer trust their government or the two major parties. It also
displayed a commendable distrust of official “safety” agencies like the
Food and Drug Administration (Arizona voters, traditionally among the most
conservative in the country, rejected a legislative softening of an initiative they had passed two years before that would have postponed medicalization of marijuana until the FDA approved it). And on a separate
initiative Arizona voters affirmed that they don’t want incarceration to be
an option for first and second offenses for simple possession of any drug.
To be sure, no initiative called for outright legalization of drugs. But
the voters, in the face of the usual alarmist rhetoric about how any softening of the drug laws in the name of compassion would lead to chaos
(and congressional refusal even to count the votes in Washington, D.C.),
voted for every single reform measure. In short, the only clear message to
emerge from the 1998 election was one of respect for freedom and personal
dignity, of confidence in the judgment of individuals and their doctors over the mandates of the state.
All the media missed it. The drug warriors may have gotten part of the
message, and responded with a stern admonition that the federal drug laws
are still in place and the uppity people — states representing 20 percent
of the population have now voted for some kind of medical-marijuana initiative — better not get too entranced by subversive ideas about states’
rights or individual choice.
Accordingly, I have a couple of modest suggestions for the initiatives
to be placed on the ballots in other states two years hence, as they certainly will be. Those initiatives should contain two additional provisions.
One, the state’s congressional delegation should be instructed — not
just recommended or any such evasion — to introduce and support a law removing marijuana from Schedule I (reserved by law for drugs with unique
dangers of abuse and no known medical value, which means keeping it there
is already against federal law) at the federal level so it can be prescribed by doctors.
Second, the attorney general of the state in question should be instructed — or commanded, or whatever legal language is most mandatory — to mount a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the federal drug
laws. A constitutional amendment was required to prohibit beverage alcohol
at the national level because everyone then understood that the national
government under the U.S. Constitution didn’t have the authority to do it.
Why isn’t an amendment required to give the national government the power
to prohibit certain other drugs? Without such an amendment, where did the
feds get the authority?
That would certainly make things interesting if we have survived the Y2K
crisis by then.