Although the two major-party candidates make much of their
differences, the likelihood of major changes in policy from what the
current administration offers is fairly low. To be sure, Gush and Bore
are saying rather different things about tax policy, Social Security,
Medicare and education policy. But even if you are sincere on the stump,
there’s a big difference between offering a program and getting it

Either presidential candidate, once elected, will face a Congress
with a majority from the other party or a very slim majority of his own
party. That’s not a formula for getting a dramatically different program
through. And the two candidates are virtually identical when it comes to
foreign policy, trade policy and a general approach to bureaucracy.
Whichever candidate is elected, we can expect to see government grow. It
might grow a bit more dramatically if Gore is elected, although even
that isn’t certain if Republicans hold Congress. If Bush beats
expectations, turns out to have coattails and brings a decent Republican
majority into Congress he might have enough juice to change the Social
Security system or institute a tentative, modest educational voucher
system, but that is far from a sure thing.

The best likelihood of the beginning of a major change in settled
national policy arising from this year’s election might come from
initiatives at the state level. And the area where change just might
come is in drug policy, an issue on which the two doofuses, like most
elected politicians, have been much too timid to question the settled
policy of prohibition.

But several drug-law reform initiatives are on state ballots with
decent chances of passage. Ralph Nader has openly said what Harry Browne
has said for years and what I’m convinced most Americans now believe —
that the drug war is an abysmal failure and it’s time for a major
reassessment. Sooner or later more than a handful of elected officials
will find themselves doing what politicians always do — finally
figuring out what the people want and scrambling to position themselves
at the head of the parade. Very few commentators have even noticed, let
alone put a national picture together (although “Nightline” did an
interesting piece on ballot initiatives in general Wednesday that
featured Proposition 36 along with voucher and health-care initiatives),
but check out what voters in various states are being asked to decide.

In California Prop. 36 would provide probation and drug treatment
rather than jail for first-time and second-time non-violent simple
possession drug offenders. Arizona voters passed a similar initiative in
1996, saw the state legislature gut it, and passed it again in 1998.
It’s been in operation two years now, and a report from the Arizona
Supreme Court shows that 75 percent of those receiving treatment are
staying drug-free. That’s a lot better than the results from sending
them to jail to receive a graduate education in how to be a more
efficient criminal.

New York has already decided, without the necessity of an initiative,
to establish a similar program. In Massachusetts Question 8 would
establish a state Drug Treatment Fund to provide treatment for
non-violent drug offenders instead of incarceration and reform the
state’s asset forfeiture laws as well.

Colorado and Nevada will vote on initiatives that would allow the
medical use of marijuana under the supervision of a licensed physician.
Both states passed such initiatives in 1998. But the proposal in Nevada
was a constitutional amendment, which requires a second vote to become

In Colorado the then-Secretary of State (now deceased) claimed there
weren’t enough valid signatures to place the measure on the ballot, but
after inconclusive court battles it was voted on. It passed, which
should have made the question of enough signatures moot, since the
purpose of
signature thresholds is to determine whether there is sufficient support
to warrant the cost and trouble of putting a proposal on the ballot. But
a court ruled that the question was vague enough to invalidate the
election, so it will be considered again this year.

In Oregon and Utah initiatives to reform the asset forfeiture
systems, which allow property to be taken from people accused but not
even convicted of a crime if prosecutors allege that the property is the
ill-gotten fruits of drug offenses, are on the ballot. In Utah the
burden of proof would shift to the government in asset seizure cases and
the money would go to education rather than to the police departments
that seized the assets. In Oregon a conviction would be required before
a seizure could be completed and money seized would go to drug

In Alaska Prop. 5, placed on the ballot through citizen signatures,
would legalize marijuana use for adults in private places and also
legalize growing industrial hemp. It would be somewhat surprising if
this one passed — drug warriors are pulling out the stops against it,
but it’s a possibility.

Consider some background to this activity. Since 1996, voters in
Arizona, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Maine, the District of
Columbia and California representing about 20 percent of the U.S.
population have passed medical marijuana initiatives. In none of these
states has the vote
been close; the majorities for medical marijuana have ranged from 56
percent in California to 69 percent in the District of Columbia (where
Congress, which runs the District, first refused to allow the vote to be
counted and then refused to implement the policy. In April of this year
the governor signed a bill passed by the state legislature to allow
medicinal use of marijuana.

As for industrial hemp, Hawaii has authorized experimental growing.
The Oglala Sioux reservation authorized an experimental planting of hemp
for industrial purposes (which was recently raided by the Drug
Enforcement Administration, an action that received almost no publicity
and is being contested in court). The Navajo or Dine people recently
voted to authorize the growing of low-THC hemp for industrial purposes
and the first planting is expected next Spring.

A small but growing hemp industry has become established in the
United States, using fabric produced overseas (mostly in China and
Hungary) to make clothes and other items. Canada, Ireland and France
have begun small-scale experiments in industrial hemp. Green Party
candidate Ralph
Nader held a full-scale event shown on C-SPAN in September with farmers
and industrial hemp organizations and advocates urging that U.S. policy
be changed to permit industrial hemp to be grown, both to bolster farm
income and for environmental benefits (hemp requires much less
pesticides than cotton, for example). Later Nader visited New Mexico,
where he held a joint press conference with Republican Gov. Gary
Johnson, who has urged that U.S. drug policy be changed, at least to the
extent of legalizing marijuana and taking a second look at the way other
illicit drugs are

Most of the press treated the Shadow Conventions, sponsored by
sometime conservative Arianna Huffington and billionaire speculator
George Soros alongside the major-party conventions, as something of a
sideshow. But each of those events featured enthusiastic support for
ending the war on drugs, including appearances from Reps. John Conyers
(senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee) Maxine Waters,
Charles Rangel (who has been a drug warrior for years but sees
increasing opposition from African-Americans) and other elected

Republican Rep. Tom Campbell, facing an uphill battle he is still
unlikely to win in his effort to unseat California Democratic Sen.
Dianne Feinstein (one of the more egregiously authoritarian drug
warriors despite her moderate image), has decided to do something
politicians seeking elected
office seldom do — go with his actual beliefs and make criticism of the
drug war the centerpiece of his campaign.

Ending the drug war or even throttling back significantly would be a
significant step toward recovering the Bill of Rights and the idea of
limited government. It is largely because of the drug war that we have
tripled prison capacity in the last two decades, then filled them to
over-capacity. Most of the mask-wearing, machine-gun-wielding home
invaders who terrorize Americans do so in the name of the drug war. The
asset forfeiture laws that have done so much to undermine the concept of
private property have been justified almost entirely by the drug war.

The laws against “money laundering” that have done so much to
undermine financial privacy have been put in place in the name of the
holy war on drugs. The drug war exception to the Fourth Amendment has
done much to eliminate the notion that a person’s home is his castle.
The drug war was the pretext for the ban on importing “assault weapons”
during the first Bush administration. The indignity of being forced to
pee in a cup or turn over DNA samples to authorities on demand has come
about because of the drug war. In the name of the drug war,
neo-Stalinist programs like DARE encourage school children to inform on
their friends and parents.

The drug war also increases violence and the amount of real crime in
society, insofar as most crime usually called “drug-related crime” is
really “drug-law-related crime” that would not happen in the absence of
drug laws. And the drug war increases corruption among police and clogs
the courts.

Rethinking the drug war, then, would have beneficial effects in a
host of areas. And there’s just an outside chance that if we can break
the psycho-political dynamic whereby either success or failure in
fighting drugs is always a justification for more spending, more
programs and more repression, perhaps that dynamic as applied to a host
of other government programs could be weakened as well.

The politicians, for any number of reasons, aren’t going to do it.
But through ballot initiatives, the people are demonstrating a certain
healthy skepticism about the drug war and those running it. If most of
the initiatives mentioned passed (Alaska probably won’t but the others
have a decent chance) it would be a significant step toward more
thoroughgoing reform.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.