Provision in Federal Spending Bill Awaits Vote by Senate
A little-known provision buried within the omnibus federal spending bill that the U.S. House of Representatives approved yesterday would take away federal grants from local and state transportation authorities that allow citizens to run advertising on buses, trains, or subways in support of reforming our nation's drug laws. If enacted, the provision could effectively silence community groups around the country that are using advertising to educate Americans about medical marijuana and other drug policy reforms. Meanwhile, this same bill gives the White House $145 million in taxpayer money to run anti-marijuana ads next year.
"The government can't spend taxpayer money promoting one side of the drug policy debate while prohibiting taxpayers from using their own money to promote the other side," said Bill Piper, Associate Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is censorship and not the democratic way."
The provision raises both constitutional and political concerns. Courts have generally ruled that public transportation authorities cannot legally discriminate against any political viewpoint. Thus, local and state authorities could soon be put in an impossible position: if they reject advertising in support of drug policy reform they risk running afoul of the First Amendment; but if they accept drug reform advertising they lose federal money. Civil libertarians warn the provision also sets a dangerous precedent. Special interest groups could lobby for federal bans on advertising with pro-life or pro-gun messages, or in support of or against gay marriage or abortion.
The provisions in the omnibus spending bill are part of a growing controversy over the use of taxpayer money to influence state and federal drug policies:
Court records show that Members of Congress created the federal government's first anti-drug advertising campaign in 1998 as a way of using billions of taxpayer dollars to influence voters to reject state medical marijuana ballot measures.
In 2000 it was discovered that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy used financial incentives to get newspapers and magazines to editorialize in favor of the drug war and get TV and movie producers to change their scripts to reflect pro-drug war views.
Current Drug Czar, John Walters, and his staff have used taxpayer money to campaign against local and state ballot measures and legislation they disapprove of. After Walters spent taxpayer money to defeat a 2002 ballot measure in Nevada, the Nevada Attorney General complained, "The excessive federal intervention that was exhibited in this instance is particularly disturbing because it sought to influence the outcome of a Nevada election."
Earlier this year, Members of Congress tried to give the White House the ability to spend over a billion dollars in taxpayer money on negative attack ads against medical marijuana ballot measures and Congressional candidates that support drug policy reform. Although a public outcry stopped the legislation, existing federal law may already allow the White House to use taxpayer money to influence elections.
The Drug Policy Alliance is urging Congress to remove the anti-free speech provision from the omnibus spending bill, eliminate taxpayer-financed anti-drug advertising, and prohibit the drug czar from using federal money to campaign and lobby against reform.
"The drug policy debate is the only one in which federal bureaucrats are allowed to use taxpayer money to influence how taxpayers vote," said Piper. "This is a dangerous precedent. Congress needs to enact a firm ban on using our money in this way, before this becomes the rule instead of the exception."