In less than 10 years the Virginia General Assembly will have legalized marijuana.
That's the vision of Gary Reams, the Libertarian Party candidate for lieutenant governor. Reams, a 45-year-old manager at a Northern Virginia division of the telecommunications company NEC, is running on what he calls the "Reams Reeferendum" to reform marijuana laws.
As proof that Virginians desire change on this issue, Reams cites the 23,000 ballot signatures he recently handed over to the state Board of Elections. That puts him in the company of Ralph Nader, who registered a similar number of signatures during his 2000 ballot drive in the commonwealth.
This campaign is the second for Reams. In 1996 he ran for Congress in the 10th District but was soundly defeated by Republican Frank Wolf.
Once, Reams was a Democrat. He even served as a delegate to national conventions on several occasions. But by 1992, he was starting to examine the ways the free market could be expanded into civil life. And he was becoming disillusioned with a party that he felt wasn't living up to its rhetoric on civil liberties. He couldn't imagine himself becoming a Republican both major parties are staunch supporters of the drug war.
After much thought, he was guided, in part, by his faith to join the Libertarian Party of Virginia. Reams is a Quaker, a believer in a religious philosophy that stresses individualism and freedom of conscience.
"I joined the Libertarian Party because of the nonaggression principle," Reams says. "Quakerism and Libertarianism have been very compatible."
While Reams is concerned about a number of issues, his statewide race, a first for the Libertarian Party of Virginia, is going to focus on just one issue: marijuana laws. Exactly what form any reform would take is still open. But he is firm about one thing: Any less-restrictive policy would be better than the current one.
"Anything we do legalization, decriminalization will be better than what we do now," Reams says. "As long as it's illegal, it's out of control. You could have the state selling it like they do with booze, or [it could be obtained] with a prescription."
Reams refers to his campaign as a "Reeferendum" because he envisions it as a quasi-referendum on the marijuana issue. Voters in Virginia can't decide this issue by a true referendum, so he has decided to run a campaign that will give Virginians a chance to express their dissatisfaction with the current policies.
Because Reams is a member of a party that stresses protection of individual liberties, he believes that the government should not regulate a citizen's private behavior.
But he has another, more practical reason to oppose the current marijuana laws. The war on drugs actually makes the world less safe, Reams says. He cites turf wars waged by drug dealers, overzealous prosecution of drug violators and the harm done to some innocent people by asset-forfeiture laws.
"With asset forfeiture, 80 percent of citizens whose property is seized no one is charged [with a crime]," he says.
Reams also opposes current drug laws because they hit the poor the hardest. As proof of a double standard, he points to the children of prominent politicians who have received much lighter than average criminal sentences. In January 1997, the son of Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., was caught with 400 pounds of marijuana. His sentence was two years. In another case, the son of Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., was caught by a sheriff's deputy in July 1999 with 10 bags of marijuana. The deputy drove him home and no charges were filed. (After the story hit the papers, the younger Grams was hauled into court and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession. He served four days of a 90-day jail sentence.)
While Reams is a Libertarian, he hopes to connect with a wide range of voters. When speaking before one gun-rights group, he drew the connection between the war on drugs and what he calls the assault on Second Amendment rights.
"One of the driving forces in gun control is the violence," Reams says. "Reduce the violence and there will be less call for gun control."
When it comes to drug laws, Reams is optimistic that the tide is turning. In a 1996 referendum, Washington, D. C., voters approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. In 2000, an Alaska referendum calling for legalization of marijuana and release from prison and restitution for people charged with possession garnered 40 percent of the vote.
"It's shifting fast," Reams says. "This prohibition is going to come down like the Iron Curtain."
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato is doubtful. "I've been hearing that since the '60's," he says. "And one day it may prove to be true."
While Sabato observes that New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson has called for marijuana-law reform and made the topic a public issue, he adds: "My guess is that many who agree with [Reams] are not registered to vote or may not cast a ballot."
Third-party candidates have not fared well in the Old Dominion since the 1970s, when Henry Howell captured the lieutenant governor's seat as an independent in 1971, then lost the gubernatorial campaign in 1973 by only 7/10 of a percentage point.
But since those days, third-party candidates have hit lower numbers than the national average. In 1992, Ross Perot took 19 percent of the national vote, but only 13 percent of the Virginia vote. In the most recent presidential election Ralph Nader pulled 2.5 percent nationally, but slightly less than 2 percent in Virginia.
But June is a very early time to make predictions about a November election. And in a very close election Reams could play a role in swinging the vote.
"You could have disgruntled Republicans and Democrats, and that could amount to 5 to 7 percent" of the vote, Sabato says. "Libertarians tend to cut against Republicans more. But this issue would tend to cut against
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