WASHINGTON – Backers of drug reform policy say White House officials overstepped their bounds by using taxpayer funds to actively campaign against statewide ballot initiatives in the last election.
One group says the federal government might have broken the law and is considering a lawsuit to bring to light what they say are unethical activities by the White House.
Bruce Merkin, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said any formal suit would target the Office of National Drug Control Policy and Drug Czar John Walters, who made trips to Ohio, Nevada and Arizona in the last year to lobby against state ballot initiatives there.
"There are legal, and frankly, moral questions here, particularly when you consider that he went through some effort in his campaign to demonize those who were running these initiatives while he runs his own campaign with an open checkbook of taxpayer money," Merkin charged.
Drug reform initiatives in several states failed at polls on Nov. 5. In Arizona, 57 percent of citizens killed a plan that would have allowed the state to distribute marijuana for medicinal purposes.
In Nevada, a plan to decriminalize possession of under three ounces of marijuana failed by 57 percent. And in Ohio, 61 percent of voters knocked down an attempt to change sentencing laws to send first and second-time drug offenders to treatment instead of jail. Drug law amendments in South Dakota also failed.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, said while the initiatives failed for many reasons, the federal government’s aggressive efforts at defeating them should not go unchecked.
"It doesn’t pass the Joe Six-Pack stink test," St. Pierre said. "It doesn’t feel right. If they take money from the federal bureaucracy to travel to another state to deter its citizens from voting a certain way … it may be criminal."
But the drug czar’s office disagrees. Walters’ job is "to go across the country and educate people about the dangers of drugs and that’s exactly what he did," said Jennifer Devallance, spokeswoman for the ONDCP, which receives an estimated $20 billion a year to conduct its anti-drug efforts.
When told about the Marijuana Policy Project’s interest in bringing legal charges against his office for campaigning, Walters said, "That’s fine, if that’s how they want to spend their resources – if there’s anything the government has plenty of, it’s lawyers."
Todd Gaziano, legal studies director for the Heritage Foundation, said the critics may not have a legal leg to stand on – given that there are federal laws against marijuana and drug sentencing guidelines, which make any changes to the laws, even at the state level, a federal interest.
"Whether you support criminal drug laws or not, the federal government has an interest in explaining to state residents that a state's changes won’t remove the federal prohibitions," he said.
Tim Lynch, a criminal studies expert at the Cato Institute, said it might not be that simple.
"I do think the government is stepping outside its proper role. They should not be engaging in state politics," Lynch said.
"If what he wants to do there is say that federal drug law takes precedence over the state and we will enforce the law, that’s fine. But if he says anything like, passage of this [initiative] would be terrible, that’s state politicking."
Gaziano, however, said expressing a personal view it not the same as politicking.
"In the course of explaining [the federal interest], if they also express their personal heartfelt view that drugs are bad and horrible ... that’s an extension of their free speech."
Apparently that’s what Walters, as well as Drug Enforcement Agency Director Asa Hutchinson, did. In several appearances, both men said they would actively campaign against the initiatives because they were dangerous to citizens.
"I am going into every state that has a ballot initiative and working with people in community coalitions," Walters said before setting off to Las Vegas to campaign against Nevada’s Question 9 in September.
Critics say the government was not only able to send its heavy hitters to garner media attention and work with local and state officials and law enforcement against the initiatives, but was behind a multimillion-dollar anti-marijuana ad blitz conveniently launched at the same time.
"I think there is little doubt that the federal government made a concerted effort to put together a game plan that sought to scarily defeat democracy," said St. Pierre.
Those fighting against the initiatives point out that the supporters had big outside backing from billionaire philanthropists George Soros, John Sperling and Peter Lewis, who have been behind many of the drug reform initiatives across the country in recent years.
And Jenny Camper, spokeswoman for Ohio’s Campaign Against Unsafe Drug Laws, which was co-chaired by Ohio’s First Lady Hope Taft, said Ohioans needed little help in defeating the drug policy initiative in their state.
"We didn't need a lot of presence from national folks. We did really well without their support."