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Move Would Let Drug Czar Campaign

House Republicans are attempting to lift long-standing restrictions on a $1 billion anti-drug advertising program in a move that would allow the White House to use taxpayer funds to engage in partisan political activities and campaign against candidates or ballot measures favoring the legalization of drugs.

The provision was quietly tucked into a bill reauthorizing the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and is set for markup today before the House Government Reform Committee.

Currently, the office and its director, who is commonly referred to as the drug czar, are barred by law from using their annual $195 million anti-drug advertising budget for partisan, political purposes.

Under language included in a reauthorization bill authored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), the prohibition would be lifted when the ONDCP director is acting “to oppose an attempt to legalize the use” of any illegal drug. The measure was approved last week by the Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources.

As written, the provision would allow partisan radio, print and television ads if the purpose were to oppose the legalization of drug use. Critics said that any candidate or political party that adopts a position promoting such reforms as allowing the medical use of marijuana or reducing drug sentencing provisions could face a government-sponsored advertising campaign against them in the electoral battlefield.

Last year, for example, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) sponsored legislation that would limit federal intervention aimed at states or localities that adopted ballot measures less restrictive than current law in dealing with marijuana use. Under the eased advertising restrictions, the drug-control office could presumably use television ads against Frank, critics of the proposal said.

The provision would also allow the drug czar to campaign against state and local ballot initiatives seeking to ease restrictions on various aspects of drug policy.

“In plain English, the subcommittee has created a political slush fund with a billion dollars of our tax money,” said Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that favors reform of laws that criminalize the use of marijuana.

“If this provision stands, it means that the drug czar can use our tax dollars to fund partisan political campaigns anytime he can justify it as ‘opposing drug legalization.’ Any administration of any party will have a blank check to run taxpayer-funded attack ads against their opponents, and all they have to do is claim they’re opposing drug legalization.”

Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said “this would be like the [Internal Revenue Service] running ads against tax-cut proposals and the candidates that support them. Using public money to tell people how to think and feel about policy is the definition of propaganda.”

A GOP committee aide defended the proposed revision as an effort to protect the federal drug prevention advertising campaign from being classified as political activity in states or locales where ballot initiatives related to the legalization of marijuana are being considered.

“What we are simply trying to clarify is that the regular operation of the media campaign, when it gets into things that some people want to claim and construe as political, is not political,” the aide said.

Last fall in Nevada, John Walters, the current director of the drug policy office, campaigned against a ballot initiative that would have largely decriminalized marijuana possession for adults. After the initiative was defeated, the Marijuana Policy Project filed a complaint with state election officials against Walters for failing to comply with Nevada’s campaign finance disclosure laws, which require “the reporting of contributions and expenses for every person or group of persons organized formally or informally who advocates the passage or defeat of a question or group of questions on the ballot at any election.”

In an April 21 opinion which found that Walters was likely immune from complying with state campaign laws as a federal official, the state’s attorney general, Brian Sandoval, nonetheless concluded that “it is unfortunate that a representative of the federal government substantially intervened in a matter that was clearly a State of Nevada issue. The excessive federal intervention that was exhibited in this instance is particularly disturbing because it sought to influence the outcome of a Nevada election.”

The GOP aide said Souder was expected to offer an amendment during Thursday’s markup to “tighten” the provision by including an“express advocacy” test that is even now at the center of a major constitutional battle in the litigation over the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The aide, who did not make a copy of the amendment available, said it would make clear that advertising that “does not expressly advocate support for or defeat of a candidate or ballot initiative in any election” would be allowed.

This would mean that the heated legal dispute over what constitutes a genuine issue ad, as opposed to an electioneering ad, would be thrust into the drug-control policy debate.

The Supreme Court test to define express advocacy — known in the campaign finance world as the “magic words” that forthrightly state an electoral position after the 1974 Buckley case — is at the center of the fight between speech and reform advocates.

The aide acknowledged difficulty with such a definition. “The problem is that the whole area is so slippery when you try to define it. And the campaign finance people have this problem.”

But Piper said that the modified provision would still be just as bad.

“It’s still allowing the White House to use taxpayer money for issue ads. At the end of the day it really doesn’t make that much difference if you go into a district and say, ‘Congressman Smith has the wrong position on drugs.’ If you do it a month before the election, voters understand what you mean.”

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