Activists push causes to candidates

By Sara Faiwell
Iowa Presidential

When Sen. John Kerry campaigned on the University of Iowa campus at the end of October he intended to talk about financial aid and rising tuition costs with local students.

But one student had something different in mind. U of I senior George Pappas approached Kerry in front of about 50 people to ask the Massachusetts senator's stance on medical marijuana.

Kerry told Pappas that as president, he would put a stop to the Bush administration's raiding of medical marijuana patients, adding that he favors more research on the issue.

Pappas, the president of the U of I chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, along with about 20 others, is taking advantage of the time Democratic candidates are spending in the state before Iowa's Jan. 19 caucus.

"This is one of the most important social justice causes the country is facing right now," said Pappas, 22, of Lombard, Ill. "Medical marijuana is the number one issue in front of drug reform policy."

Other groups are similarly hoping to get their chance in the spotlight while the candidates are parading through Iowa. Two of the most visible so far besides the student group have been Iowa for Health Care and the Every Child Matters Education Fund.

Students involved in the drug policy group say they know the idea of medical marijuana has a certain "shock value" when raised at political gatherings. Members say no one in the group condones smoking pot.

"There is such an injustice being done when it comes to this," said drug policy group member Natalie Wicklund, 20, of Bloomington, Ill., who had two grandparents die of cancer. "I've seen what it's like to watch someone suffer -there is research that shows marijuana helps cancer patients."

Although federal law bans the use of marijuana, the Supreme Court ruled last month in favor of state laws allowing ill patients to smoke the drug if a doctor recommends it. In Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, marijuana is legal for people with prescriptions. The U of I drug policy group hopes to add Iowa to this list of states. An additional 35 states have passed legislation recognizing marijuana's medicinal value.

Wicklund questioned former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean at a Johnson County Democratic barbecue last month about the issue. Although Dean, a medical doctor, says marijuana should be treated no differently from any other drug, Wicklund said she was impressed with how receptive Dean was to talk with her.

Interest groups have always focused on getting involved in the caucuses. These groups have an incentive to try to get their ideas across not only to the presidential candidates, but also to caucus participants, said U of I political science professor David Redlawsk.

"Groups get access to presidential candidates in a way they usually can't anywhere else," he said. "The caucuses are not only about candidates but also about issues."

Anyone who has attended a campaign event probably has seen some of the 3,500 Iowa nurses, donning their signature purple T-shirts and stethoscopes, questioning candidates in past months about a universal health-care plan.

Each time the Democratic contenders land at a state airport, they are immediately greeted by a poster reading, "Running for president? Health care better be your priority."

"Nurses have a unique perspective from the bedside, so who better is there to be the voice of this change in the country?" said Sarah Swisher, director of Iowa for Health Care and a nurse at University Hospitals. For example, Mary Jo Meggers, also a nurse at University Hospitals, has already talked with Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, Kerry and Dean about the harmful effects of soaring health care costs to her patients.

Volunteers from Every Child Matters, a nonprofit organization that aims to make children a higher political priority, is buying print and TV ads, along with putting up yard signs and billboards. The Washington, D.C.-based organization has three paid staffers and more than 500 volunteers in Iowa, spokesman Tom La Pointe said.

The group is pushing for programs to stop child abuse and improve child care and health care for children.
For the most part, the Democratic candidates have been open to questions asked by these interest groups, members say. However, members of the drug policy group say some candidates are reluctant to talk about the controversial marijuana issue.

At a "Hear it from the Heartland" forum last month with Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Pappas said he sat intently in the audience waiting to fire off a question about medical marijuana. He said he was "blown off" by Lieberman staffers because they were screening questions.

Afterward, Pappas confronted the senator in front of C-SPAN cameras to talk about medical use of the drug and Lieberman answered Pappas' question.

Pappas said none of the candidates he's spoken to has ignored him completely, and Lieberman was the least receptive to the medical use of marijuana.

Lieberman does oppose legalizing the drug and the senator isn't aware of any reputable studies that support the use of it medicinally, campaign spokesman Adam Kovacevich said.

Members of the student drug policy group say they feel empowered.

"People our age are finally realizing that we can work for things like this," Wicklund said.

On medical marijuana: The candidates' positions on medical marijuana, according to their campaigns:

JOHN EDWARDS: Science is still unclear. There needs to be a high-level Food and Drug Administration commission to determine right away whether medical marijuana is the best way to treat pain.

JOHN KERRY: Supports the use of real science to determine the effectiveness, safety and need for the controlled medical use of marijuana. If scientifically warranted, and studied by an objective commission, the use must be closely restricted to prevent abuse and illegal trafficking.

HOWARD DEAN: As a doctor, he believes marijuana should be treated no differently from any other drug. It should be evaluated by the FDA for its safety and then approved if it is safe and effective, rejected if it is not.

DENNIS KUCINICH: Disagrees with President Bush's methods of "harassing medical marijuana patients" and instead favors medical marijuana being used to relieve the suffering of seriously ill patients.

JOE LIEBERMAN: Is aware of reports that marijuana may provide therapeutic relief for some individuals, but isn't aware of any reputable studies to support this. He opposes legalizing a drug that many health professionals believe has greater health risks than therapeutic benefits.

CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: Is in favor of medicinal marijuana use.

Campaigns for Dick Gephardt, Wesley Clark and Al Sharpton did not respond timely to requests for information about their position on this issue.

E-mail Sara Faiwell at [email protected].

This story was published in The Des Moines Register on October 29, 2003.

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