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November 12, 2004 - The Drug War Chronicle (US Web)

In an Hour of Conservative Ascendancy:

Prospects for Drug Reform at the Federal Level During the Next Four Years

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Election Day has come and gone. President Bush, whose victory in 2000 was clouded by controversy, won 51% of the popular vote, creating, at least in the eyes of some, a mandate to pursue socially conservative domestic policies and an aggressive foreign policy. The conservative tide also broke over the Senate, and to a lesser degree, the House of Representatives, with the Republicans picking up four seats in each chamber. With majorities of 55-44 in the Senate and 231-200 in the House (with one independent in each chamber), the Republicans have strengthened their vise-grip on the Congress.

Why the Republicans won so convincingly is open to debate, but conventional wisdom holds that part of the reason, at least, was that turnout by socially conservative voters opposed to gay marriage and abortion was strong enough to exceed the massive voter mobilization efforts carried out by the Democratic Party, Democrat-aligned 527 groups and independent organizations targeting youth, minorities and other sectors presumed to lean Democratic. While conservative strength does not in all cases imply an electorate wholly opposed to drug reform -- Montana, for example, a state which voted heavily for George Bush and even more heavily against same sex marriage, also handily passed a medical marijuana initiative -- conventional wisdom also tends to see overall social conservatism as being correlated with repressive views on drug policy.

From foreign affairs (the coca and opium wars in Colombia and Afghanistan) to sentencing policies to setting law enforcement priorities to funding the drug war, Congress and the executive branch set the tone for drug policy nationwide. Drug War Chronicle this week spoke with a number of national drug reform leaders to see how the new Congress and the reinvigorated Bush presidency will affect the prospects for reform in Washington. While the overall prognosis was decidedly grim, some bravely sought silver linings in the election results nevertheless.

While there may be possibilities to appeal to different wings of the majority party on different issues, perhaps splitting off fiscal conservatives on budgetary issues or states' rights conservatives on issues such as medical marijuana, prospects for progress on drug reform issues are not as good as before the election, said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance ( "Yes, it is going to be more difficult," he told DRCNet.

"Progress will be more difficult," agreed Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation ( But for Sterling, while last week's election makes the prospects for reform marginally dimmer, it is not so much the makeup of the new Congress but the relative immaturity of the drug reform movement that blocks progress on Capitol Hill. "The Congress is not going to move on our issues until key constituencies in both parties start telling it it is time for change," he told DRCNet. "The Republicans need to hear from the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers that they cannot afford our current drug policies. Likewise, the Democrats need to hear from their bases -- from labor, from minorities, from the women's movement -- that they want change. Until then, I don't see us making much progress."

It is the rise of the "moral values" vote that is stirring most discussion. "This election has demonstrated once again the influence that organized religious people can have in the political arena," said Charles Thomas, executive director of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (, which has been working to bring mainstream denominations into the drug policy fight. "This is a real wake-up call, not just for our movement, but for the mainstream denominations and faith-based advocacy groups. Now people increasingly recognize the importance of organizing faith-based groups that are not on the extreme right wing," he told DRCNet. "We've been organizing around this for a year, and we think we are in a good position to be able to contribute to that," Thomas said.

But there are also potential points of convergence with the religious right, Thomas said. "A lot of fundamentalist Christian groups have done missionary work in the prisons, and as a result, they are actually aware of how bad the situation is in the prisons," he argued. "They recognize alternatives to incarceration and are focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment for punishment's sake. Yes, there is a possibility of working even with the religious right."

Drug reformers ignore the religious right at their peril, said Nora Callahan, executive director of the prisoner-oriented drug reform organization the November Coalition ( "These people are increasingly powerful," she told DRCNet, "and there are possibilities for working with them." Like Thomas, Callahan pointed to the prison missionary work done by evangelicals. "People like Chuck Colson and his Prison Fellowship are in the prisons, and they can see for themselves what is going on," she said. "We can also talk to them about proportionality in sentencing. When the Bible talks about an eye for an eye, it is talking about a punishment that fits the crime. It is clear to anyone who goes into the prisons that sentencing people to decades behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes is hardly proportional punishment. We can ask the evangelicals, who would Jesus put in prison?"

Conservative Christian morality may provide an opening to combat some of the drug war's worst excesses, agreed DRCNet executive director Dave Borden, pointing to the case of self-confessed evangelical Christian and drug war hard-liner Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), author of the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision. "Mark Souder says he wants to scale back this law because as an evangelical he doesn't believe people's pasts should be held against them," said Borden. "Will Souder apply that logic to other areas of drug policy, mandatory minimum sentencing, for example? Given the totality of his record, I have to consider that extremely unlikely. But it does point to a possible opening to begin the discussion with religious-minded conservatives."

While some see prospects for being able to reach points of agreement with the religious right, others are not so sure. "The evangelicals are simply not going to listen to us," scoffed Sterling.

But while attempting to work with the religious right may be desirable and even necessary, said Thomas, mainstream denominations are also arousing themselves. "The so-called religious left wants to be more active," he said. "Mainstream people who go to church, but who have not made any explicit connection between their religion and their politics, are now seeing what is going on, and the recent victory on the right may help to mobilize an effective opposition. And since these religious groups and individuals already support drug reform to some degree, as the mainstream gets more active in response to other issues, the fact that they are already on board with drug reform will help us have a more powerful advocacy," he said.

Cultural conservatives are already threatening what could be one relative bright spot, said Sanho Tree, drug policy fellow for the Institute for Policy Studies
( With conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) being forced by term limits from his position as chair of the critical Senate Judiciary Committee, the relatively liberal Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter is in line to take over. But Specter has enraged conservatives by suggesting that President Bush will have trouble getting anti-choice judicial appointments through the Senate confirmation process.

"Senators normally don't want to mess with the seniority system because it could be used against them someday, but the right wing is mounting a furious campaign against Specter," Tree told DRCNet. "If they succeed, the drug reform movement will lose a major moderating voice in a key Senate committee."

Prospects for progress on marijuana policy appear equally dim. "Our hope had been that if Kerry had been elected as president that the raids on medical marijuana patients and providers would have ended and medical marijuana research could have moved forward in a more productive manner," said Marijuana Policy Project ( director of government relations Steve Fox. Kerry sent a letter last year supporting a research effort at the University of Massachusetts, he noted. "Still, I'm not sure what our prospects would have been in either case, given a Republican Congress.

But, said Fox, Republican control of the Congress may perversely improve the prospects for passage of an amendment to de-fund federal medical marijuana raids in states where voters have approved its use. "This could make passage of the amendment more likely," he said. "Much depends on what Bush and his new attorney general decide to do with respect to medical marijuana. If they decide to pull back on the raids, people may see less of a need for it, but if they decide they have a mandate and want to spend their political capital going after medical marijuana patients, there could be a backlash and we might get enough momentum to pass Hinchey-Rohrabacher in the House."

That amendment is probably the only shot for a victory in Congress on marijuana issues, Fox said. "There was some hope of getting some sort of states' rights bill going in terms of marijuana policy," he told DRCNet, "but that would not pass in the current Congress."

The election results are also likely to give the administration an ever freer hand in pursuing its war on drugs worldwide. Even before the election, Congress had voted to approve doubling the number of US troops and mercenaries operating in Colombia, and this week, administration officials vowed to wage war on the opium trade in Afghanistan. But that free hand may be partially counterbalanced by the overextension of US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The Congress has approved sending more troops to Colombia," said IPS's Tree, who has been leading delegations to the South American country for several years now. "The problem is, the troops they need to send are Special Forces to train the Colombian military, and those Special Forces are busy elsewhere," he said.

If there is one area where drug policy progress is likely, it is reform of the HEA anti-drug provision. Faced with withering criticism, provision author Rep. Souder is calling for revamping the HEA to specify that the anti-drug provision would only apply to students who committed their drug offenses while they were in school receiving federal aid.

"The good news is that a partial reform is being supported by most conservatives and the administration," said DRCNet's Borden. "So that much at least is likely to happen, and I find that encouraging, though only slightly."

But while a rollback would be a partial victory for the coalition that has formed to defeat the provision, it is not their ultimate goal. "We want full repeal," said Borden. "A Kerry victory might have opened up a new set of possibilities, on this and other issues. But any election result short of returning Congress to the Democrats would still have left the repeal fight in essentially similar circumstances," he argued. "There are a number of Republicans who have privately said they favor outright repeal of the law, but none so far have been willing to take the lead in offering legislation, and that's a big challenge. At the same time, if a few Republicans would vote the right way, which seems possible even now, this can be won. I wish I could say I think we'll win this in the short term, but drug reform is an uphill fight and HEA is no exception. Still, I'm optimistic that the drug provision will eventually be repealed."

Borden was determinedly optimistic about broader drug reform issues as well. "Not all the reins of power are in the hands of drug warriors," he said. "And there are signs that we may see progress on some fronts. There is a growing movement to deal with prisoners' reentry into society, and that is not just a liberal movement. President Bush talked about it in his State of the Union address. From our standpoint, movement in this direction is small, but if people like the Bush administration and Rep. Souder are talking about it, that's a start, and it's more than lip service -- though again, only slightly more. Everything starts with one step," Borden said, "even if two or more steps backwards may also be likely at this moment."

In the wake of November 2nd, it is an understatement, perhaps, to say that drug policy reformers are not feeling over-optimistic about short-term prospects for improvements at the federal level. But then again, they weren't before -- nor are they giving up.

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