During a lengthy state convention this weekend, the new official platform for the Iowa Democratic Party got notably more progressive, thanks in particular to the many new Bernie Sanders supporters. An addition to a $15/hour minimum wage was easily passed, the environmental section opposed fossil fuels and had robust water quality measures, and a plank supported a single payer healthcare system. After some contentious debates, delegates also voted for opposing Superdelegates.
And then they got to the “Criminal Justice” section. That’s where the couple hundred delegates still around late into the evening voted in favor of the “Legalizing all drugs” plank. This was after a discussion over a minority report that would have revised that language to “Decriminalizing all drugs.”
So yes, that would presumably include legalizing meth, heroin and cocaine. Many of the delegates were in favor of legalizing cannabis, but that was accomplished in a separate plank – so this very clearly was about legalizing all drugs.
It’s difficult to know where to start with this, and is partially why it took a few days to write it. Let’s start with the arguments in favor of it.
Several speakers on the topic at convention argued that the pharmaceutical industry has already legalized many of the ingredients of meth, that we’re spending too much money putting people in prison, and that legalization would allow the state to control the distribution, which could focus on getting people off their addiction. Other proponents argue that prohibition doesn’t eliminate a product, it just makes it more dangerous and forces a black market that often becomes very violent. They also point to certain countries in Europe that had success with full legalization. And they say when you’re not in fear of prosecution, you’re much more likely to seek treatment.
But those opposed can hardly fathom that Iowa would outright legalize – not just decriminalize – all drugs. Many believe that would lead to increased experimentation that would draw more people in to drug use. A black market would likely still exist for those not wanting to have the government wean them off a drug. Drug dealers aren’t suddenly going to go live upstanding lives. And many drugs have a horrendous affect on people’s minds and bodies. Just because our current drug laws haven’t worked well doesn’t mean we should up and legalize everything – there are plenty of policies we haven’t enacted yet, including better funding for treatment and rehabilitation and an end to mandatory minimums along with lesser sentencing – if any at all – for nonviolent drug offenders.
An important caveat, however, is that the party’s platform has a strict word limit that diminishes the ability to really flesh out the nuances of these arguments. One delegate had a particularly helpful series of tweets you may want to read through:
Planks are not legislation. They are a statement of a value, but lacking the specificity of law. 3/
— Jonathan Green (@modestholdings) June 19, 2016
Still, the reaction the next day from activists who hadn’t stayed so late were not very favorable (and yes, they could have stayed to vote, but the bigger issue here is that it’s a dumb way to craft the platform – until 2:00am with a bunch of exhausted people). The press reports weren’t too good either, and party leaders were quick to distance themselves.
Some Sanders supporters online expressed frustration over the backlash, seeming to think it meant the party didn’t take their concerns seriously. But what it could also be seen as is simply a disagreement over policy. Sanders supporters wanted the party to have a more open discussion over progressive issues – now we are. You can’t expect everyone to immediately come over on every single piece of policy – especially this one. Legalizing all drugs has not been discussed barely at all in the Democratic Party. That’s much more a Ron Paul/libertarian sort of thing, so some surprise should be expected.
And folks will likely continue to discuss whether the policy aspect of it was right or wrong. However, on a political level, it was downright foolish.
First, when it comes to campaigns, Iowa candidates have been attacked in the past on what their party platform reads, even if they themselves never said it. Campaigns can get around the legal hurdles of libel this way, even though it’s pretty silly. So in theory Republicans could blast out mailers this year that say State Senator Liz Mathis supports legal meth, with a little citation of the platform at the bottom of the page.
Of course, that may not happen because that could very easily backfire. In 2010 in Sioux City the Democratic Party hit Jeremy Taylor for supposedly wanting to do away with Social Security, using a part of the Republican Party of Iowa’s platform as justification, and added in a picture of an old woman eating cat food on a mail piece to drive the point home. Taylor easily turned that around and caused blowback for his Democratic opponent.
It’s unlikely anyone in Marion would believe that Senator Mathis actually thinks Iowa should legalize meth (because she doesn’t), so the Republicans probably wouldn’t try such a thing. And there’s plenty of extreme parts of the Republican platform that Democrats would be more than happy to use in response.
And in general Democrats shouldn’t craft their platform based off of what could or couldn’t be used in a campaign. It should be a wish list, and it should sometimes press the party’s own candidates further on issues the base cares about. But it should still be done with some level of care. “Legalizing all drugs” is the complete opposite of that, and is incredibly reckless.
On the internal political side, it doesn’t help the more progressive members of the party that want the platform to be more impactful. Like a “poison pill” amendment in a larger bill in Congress, this plank simply makes it way too easy for Democratic candidates and elected officials to ignore the whole thing. And voting to legalize all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, just sounds plain goofy to those who don’t know the rationale behind it, and even to some who do.
It’s also a matter of choosing your battles. Probably 99% of the things in the platform are more likely to be accomplished before Iowa or America gets to a place (if ever) where they’re going to legalize all drugs in order to address the complicated problems of drug abuse. Even if Democrats controlled the Governor’s office, Senate and House in Iowa, that still would be nowhere near the agenda to even be discussed.
So it’s not something that has a chance of passing, there are plenty of other policy methods to address problems with drug abuse, and it’s needlessly politically dangerous that it diminishes the value of the rest of the platform.
The big question a lot of Democrats and progressives are trying to figure out right now is how to make the party and candidates embrace more progressive policy measures. The party platform route is always difficult because there’s no real mechanism to enforce it, but it is one way of officially registering where the party stands. Candidates will at least pay some attention to it, even if they don’t follow it exactly.
But where’s the balance? What’s the most effective method to assert pressure or encourage elected officials to support your cause? That’s a tricky answer many of these new activists will have to figure out going forward. I don’t think this specific platform plank did them any favors, but all of politics is a set of trials and errors, adjusting strategy and finding what works. There was a lot of great stuff in the Democrats’ new platform, so here’s hoping that happens.
by Pat Rynard