By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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"To tell you the truth, this was one of the reasons I was sort of challenged to run again," he says. "The very first question was 'Are you for legalization of drugs?' I mean, that was the very first question, so I knew and then it went on and on."
Dr. Ken Bryan served as a political consultant in the primary campaign against Paul and in a general campaign against him a few years later. He says the drug stuff "never stuck."
"Part of the deal was that people thought the charges were so outrageous that they wouldn't believe it," says Bryan. "Most people saw him as the old-time doctor. He delivered lots of people's babies."
To parry his opponents' thrusts, and to burnish that image, Paul countered with ads that showed him in his doctor's office with the white coat, delivering babies and such.
The strategy worked again and again. As Paul himself points out, "I'm in a conservative Bible Belt district, who I'm sure aren't very happy with drugs. It's not like San Francisco or something." Yet the parable of Ron Paul bears enormous significance for the issue of medical marijuana as a whole, particularly if supporters hope to break the political gridlock that has formed.
"We're kind of in an interesting phase on this issue," says NORML's Stroup. "We have won the hearts and minds of a large majority of the American public."
Several polls validate this contention. A 2001 Pew Research Center study found the public supports prescription marijuana by a more than three-to-one ratio, and a Time/CNN survey one year later had it at 80 percent. But despite the fact that marijuana's medical use enjoys widespread and consistent public support, it's a source of a paralysis on the part of elected officials -- perhaps the strangest paradox in politics. Both conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr.'s writings and the NORML Web site, odd bedfellows in the fight to legalize, lament this pervasive fear of looking "soft on drugs."
"You know why it's not legal," says Paul. "It's because people are afraid to vote that way. You know, people get hysterical" -- he fakes a shrieky voice -- "Oh, I can't do that. I agree with you, but the people'll think I'm pro-drugs The whole thing is just carried away. So Congress is way behind what the people are thinking. If this were a really, really bad position, I couldn't be in office, because it's been used against me continuously." The point is salient not only to Paul, but it speaks to a second, perhaps stranger paradox: Despite the issue's volatility, no one can think of a single case of someone significant losing their seat because of a stance on medical marijuana.
"Ron Paul should've been gone 20 years ago if that were the case," says Alan Bock, author of Waiting toInhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana. "I think partly what this is, most people, early in their political careers, some consultant told them: 'Don't touch that. Your career's over.' And they've never rethought it. Even if they've had fairly serious questions about it."
Adding to the strangeness is the fact that Ron Paul makes for such an unlikely "legalize it" poster boy. "The real irony of all this," Paul explains, "is because I'm -- if not the most -- almost the most outspoken proponent of legalizing the use for medical purposes. And I can honestly say I have never seen a person smoke marijuana. And I've never been in a room with it. And I hesitate to ever say that at Libertarian conventions, because I'm afraid that someone'll come up and break my record."
That alleged insularity doesn't necessarily go for his staff as a whole, though. In April, a 19-year-old intern got busted trying to smuggle weed and a pipe into the Republican's Capitol office. The young man promptly resigned.
At last count, nearly a dozen states from Alaska to Maine had passed initiatives regarding the medical use of marijuana. In Texas, the most recent action was in February 2001, when Terry Keel, a state representative from Austin, introduced House Bill 513, which would have provided for "affirmative defense" -- a chance for those being prosecuted for marijuana to present evidence of medical illness as a means of defense. That Keel would be the one bringing this proposed legislation forward came as a surprise. The Republican had been a former assistant district attorney and sheriff in Travis County.
"I'm not saying that someone without those credentials couldn't have gotten it to the same point," says Shyra Darr, Keel's chief of staff, "but I think that got the attention of a lot of people who might not have taken it even remotely seriously otherwise."
Even so, whatever momentum Keel was hoping for dissipated quickly. The bill, which many believed wouldn't be carried by a sponsor in the Senate anyway, never even made it off the floor to a vote in the House. It's languishing in a committee to this day.
Efforts at the state level matter less, of course, because pot remains illegal at the federal level. For the past few years, Ron Paul has annually co-sponsored a "States Rights to Medical Marijuana" bill that would move the drug from schedule I (no accepted medical use) to schedule II (prescription only) of the Controlled Substance Act and would allow states to make the decision about legalization without federal interference. This proposal, along with a "Truth in Trials" affirmative defense bill, died in committee. The only vote that Congress has recently had on the issue has been for an appropriations amendment to withhold funds from federal agents going after patients who use marijuana legally under state law. This summer, for the second July in a row, the measure failed.