The other week I wrote about the increasing popularity that marijuana legalization enjoys in Wisconsin. In a recent poll, half of registered voters in the Badger State voiced support for allowing people to buy pot as they now can in Colorado and the state of Washington.
And yet, as the article noted, the prospect of legally buying a bag of professionally grown reefer remains a frustratingly out of reach for legalization activists in the state. The Democratic candidate for governor bluntly dismissed the idea and Republican lawmakers in the Legislature are actually pushing a bill that would give municipalities more power to crack down on pot smokers.
The imagery of a legalization rally — beards, Birkenstocks, bongos — is indeed inconsistent with conventional perceptions of political power.
But if money matters in politics, there's actually a lot of fat wallets behind reforming drug laws.
The Koch Brothers, for instance. Yes, the same Kochs whose company and nonprofit spent millions of dollars to elect Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans to the state Legislature.
The billionaire industrialists are major financial backers of a number of groups that advocate for decriminalization or legalization of drugs. Influential libertarian groups, such as the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, are some of their biggest beneficiaries. David Koch is a trustee of the Reason Foundation and sits on the board of Cato. And Charles Koch finances annual summer internships for young activists to work at a variety of nonprofits, including the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance.
So if we have a state government run by those closely allied with the Kochs — including a governor who eagerly took a phone call from a man posing as David Koch — then why isn't the liberalization of drug policy on the horizon?
The easy answer seems to be that while the Kochs and other influential players pour money into anti-drug-war think tanks, they are not yet willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads attacking politicians who oppose drug reform.
"Considering the manner in which the Kochs deploy their resources, if it were a major goal, I think there would be more examples of actual law changes, unless I've missed seeing them," responded Gary Storck, executive director of the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, in an email. "Perhaps drug policy reform is just a bit player in their larger agenda, a way to network with folks who might have similar philosophies on non drug policy related items?"
In fact, in a public battle over control of Cato that pitted the Kochs against other leaders in the group last year, some libertarians voiced concern that issues that are not priorities to Republicans, including drug policy, would be shoved aside if the Kochs were calling the shots.
"If Charles Koch, the CEO of Koch Industries, gets his way, the independence that has allowed Cato scholars to focus on smart policies rather than electoral politics will come to an end," wrote Robert Levy, the chairman of Cato's board of directors last year.
In a blog he dedicated to the feud over control of Cato, one of the group's leaders, Joey Coon, cited drug policy as an area that the Kochs' philosophy of "market-based management," which emphasizes rewarding those who bring in profits, would not nurture.
"Several colleagues and I have labored ... to make the case against the futile, counterproductive war on drugs. Change on that front has been agonizingly slow. But in the mid and late 1990s, states began to pass medical marijuana laws and decriminalize possession of small quantities of drugs.
"It would have been difficult to justify such a long-term commitment (with few visible signs of success in the early years) under the concept of market-based management. "
Cato and the Kochs finally reached an agreement that the organization said allowed it to maintain its independence. It and other organizations that support legalization will have to continue to gradually imprint their philosophy into the consciousness of Americans. But until we see 30-second attack ads on the subject, don't expect big change from elected officials.