Libertarians Fight Over Affiliates, Drug Policy
by Ari Armstrong, July 2, 2003
Libertarians are making some progress in Colorado, but they are also involved in some tense relationships involving various factions.
Shannon Ceranski, former Outreach Coordinator for the "South East of Denver LP," called me June 30 to ask me to remove the group's meeting from my calendar page.
Ceranski, along with her husband Chris, Treasurer, and Randal Morgan, Chair, all resigned their positions recently to protest what they call heavy-handed treatment by the state board.
Ceranski said state LP board members Rand Fanshier and Michael McKinzie planned a telethon without input from the leaders of the affiliate. She said that the group was formed with the assistance of former State Chair John Berntson.
Fanshier said, "None of them talked to me before they made these decisions... I don't want them to leave the fold." He is "waiting for communication" from the group.
Still, he added, he expects affiliates to become politically active. "This year is going to be defining the party," Fanshier said, in which the LP "turns from a discussion group to an effective political organization."
Fanshier has organized telethons across the state and he has started keeping a weekly log of LPCO activities (linked at www.lpcolorado.org.) Volunteers got 72 Libertarian registrations at the recent People's Fair in Denver, he noted.
The telethons are popular with at least some groups. Desiree Hickson, Media Director for the state LP, reported via Fanshier's review, "Rand Fanshier, LPCO Outreach Director, came down [June 26] to show the El Paso County affiliate some of the secrets to his success in the Denver area. The 'phone-a-thon' was hosted in the home of Scott and Nancy Graves, LPEP Vice-Chair and Activities Director respectively, Colorado Springs. Also in attendance were Bill Blair, LPEP Membership Director, Nathan Hickson, and Desiree Hickson..."
Fanshier planned a July 1 telethon with Severin Schneider, another member of the South East of Denver LP. Schneider reported the event went well, and a number of people plan to attend an upcoming meeting to be held at the Aurora Public Library.
In a recent article, Ralph Shnelvar, 2002 LP candidate for governor, perhaps oddly noted his essay is "not sanctioned in any way by the National or State Libertarian Party." He adds, "If you decide to go on this diet you should definitely consult your local Libertarian Party chapter to find out if this is, indeed, a diet that they agree with."
Shnelvar and some members of the state board have been quarreling. Joseph Pietri, author of The King of Nepal, complained to the board about Shnelvar's recent appearance on Peter Boyles' television show (KBDI 12) to discuss the legalization of marijuana. Pietri complained Shnelvar and Ken Gorman addressed other drugs besides marijuana as well as other issues, such as the right to bear arms.
Pietri told me Shnelvar's performance was "weak" and it lost the LP votes. "The DEA agent [also on the show] ran over both of them," Pietri added. Shnelvar and Gorman "looked like fools," in Pietri's estimation. Also, Pietri claimed Shnelvar characterized himself as a spokesperson for the Libertarian Party of Colorado without authorization from the board.
Shnelvar collaborated with Gorman during his campaign. Gorman went to prison for distributing marijuana. Apparently, Gorman and Pietri have had a running tiff for some time. (Pietri even claims Gorman has been a government spy, a claim Gorman calls "ridiculous." Gorman notes he continues to have to take frequent urine tests while he's on parole, and he'd have to return to prison if he failed one. Strangely, when I asked Pietri why he thinks Gorman has been a government spy, Pietri said, "Ken Gorman told me himself.")
Pietri also played a role in organizing the Koleen Brooks affair, which he notes netted the Libertarian Party a lot of publicity. He also claims a role in helping a number of Libertarian candidates appear on KBPI, including Rick Stanley. "I like Rick Stanley -- I voted for him," Pietri said. During the elections, I sided with Shnelvar against Stanley.
The former Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate claimed in a recent e-mail he was contacted by the board of the Libertarian Party of Colorado, offered an apology, and encouraged to run again for Senate on the LP ticket in 2004. Olsen categorically denies those claims, though apparently one board member did have some sort of discussion with him without the sanction of the board.
Pietri also said he's active in the Colorado chapter of the U.S. Marijuana Party (which makes me wonder why he felt compelled to contact the Libertarian state board). When I asked him who might have done a better job on Boyles' show, Pietri named Bob Melamede, a professor at CU, Colorado Springs, and himself. "I know every answer" to the objections of those who challenge medical marijuana, Pietri said.
Having watched the tape of Boyles' show, I can understand Pietri's frustration with it. Medical marijuana was barely mentioned. Marijuana was discussed, but mostly in the context of the drug war generally. Boyles introduced the show as dealing with the "pros and cons of legalizing marijuana." Those expecting a defense of the medical use of marijuana would have been sorely disappointed.
However, contrary to Pietri's assertion, Shnelvar did not claim to be a spokesperson for the Libertarian Party of Colorado. Several times Shnelvar referred to himself as a "libertarian," but that term preceded the LP by many years and is not synonymous with the LP. Boyles correctly introduced Shnelvar as a "Libertarian Party activist" and the "Libertarian gubernatorial candidate in 2002." However, just because somebody is a member of the Libertarian Party and calls himself a libertarian, doesn't mean he needs to get permission from the state LP board prior to speaking publicly. Similarly, people who call themselves "liberals" or "conservatives" do not have to seek permission from the Democratic and Republican parties before addressing a popular audience.
I didn't think any of the parties did an especially great job on the show. Just in terms of persuasion, Special Agent Jeffrey Sweetin of the DEA was smoothest and most prepared for a television format. However, on a number of occasions he avoided reasoned arguments in favor of personal attacks against Gorman and Shnelvar. He also purposely misrepresented his opponents' views. For example, he linked Gorman's claim that he couldn't present his case in court to a nutty "conspiracy theory." However, it is well-known that judges routinely prevent the defense from presenting information that they provided marijuana to sick and dying patients for medical use. Sweetin also suggested Shnelvar wanted to work outside the government to throw the "Colorado government into chaos" if elected governor. In fact, Shnelvar said he would simply veto all bills until marijuana were legalized. I do not see how Sweetin's personal attacks and context-dropping can be attributed to anything other than intellectual dishonestly on his part.
I did like one line of Sweetin's argument, however. He said the language about the "war on drugs" should be dropped. He said fighting drug use should be treated just like any other crime -- as a daily job, not a "war" to be finally won. Of course, after several decades of failure to wipe out drug abuse, it's pretty difficult to argue prohibition will finally "succeed."
When Sweetin said at the beginning, "I don't see either of them [Gorman or Shnelvar] as supportive of government," Shnelvar had a pretty good response: "Libertarians are for minimal government... I, as a libertarian, say there are certain functions of government that are absolutely necessary," such as dealing with violent crime.
It is what Shnelvar said between the ellipses that upset me: "We're sort of the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party -- please, folks, I didn't just say that." Ah, but he did say it. As Shnelvar has told me many times, "You can't un-ring a bell." So in a single sentence Shnelvar managed to tag libertarians with two negative perceptions: "extreme" and "right-wing." Way to feed the stereotypes. Now, in the general context of the argument, I understood what Shnelvar meant. State Senator Bruce Cairns had just explained how, as a Republican, he generally favored "less government." There is a sense in which libertarians favor even "less government" than many Republicans. Still, I'm quite sure few people contemplated this finer point, as Shnelvar immediately recognized.
And a word here about criticizing people on television and radio: it's a tough job. I've said some things in public that I've regretted. (I've also made some very thoughtful comments in public.) On the whole, Shnelvar did a competent job. He didn't hit it out of the park, and he struck out a few times. But he did much better than Pietri indicated.
Gorman simply had too much to say. He started talking about the industrial uses of hemp, but he couldn't get very far with the subject. He started talking about the violence associated with prohibition, but he never quite nailed down the point. Special Agent Sweetin was pretty good at turning the flow of the discussion in his favor. Also, Boyles finally become somewhat hostile to Gorman. It strikes me that Gorman simply was trying to delve into too much information than was possible for an argumentative TV format. Also, Gorman does sometimes use language that makes it easy to tag him as a "conspiracy theorist."
I actually thought Boyles was the most compelling critic of prohibition. He pointed out it's been going on a long time with seemingly little success. He pointed out alcohol is regularly abused, yet few people are calling for that drug to be outlawed again.
I was most disappointed with Cairn's discussions. He said, sensibly, that there is a moral problem with "putting toxins into your body." (Of course, eating barbecued food puts toxins into your body, so we have to consider the level of toxicity as well as the trade-offs. Chemotherapy is highly toxic but arguably beneficial for some people.) He said, also sensibly, that drug abuse hurts people. What he failed to do is offer any explanation for why (some) drugs should be illegal. He readily admitted alcohol is often abused, yet he didn't suggest it should be prohibited again. He argued marijuana is a "gateway" to other drugs and other problems. Well, I've heard the same claim about rock music. Lots of activities *might* encourage a person to get involved in other bad activities, yet we don't outlaw the overwhelming majority of these activities.
Shnelvar offered a great reply to Cairns at one point. Cairns said he thinks drug use is prevalent in the U.S. (despite prohibition) because people have lost touch with the founding principles of the U.S., which Cairns links to "God-consciousness."
Shnelvar pointed out America's founding principles include the restriction of government to its proper functions. Shnelvar didn't have time to pursue the point, but I'd like to hear what Cairns thinks of the notion that it is paternalistic government itself which encourages personal irresponsibility. As Herbert Spencer put the matter, "The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools."
Getting back to Pietri's complaint, while Gorman and Shnelvar might not have taken command of the discussion the way they (or others) might have, they did an okay job. Why is Pietri angry about the show? If I had to guess, I would say Pietri is most angry that Boyles introduced Gorman as the "leader of the marijuana movement in Colorado." There seem to be a number of people vying for that position, for some reason that is incomprehensible to me.
I asked Fanshier if there was any truth to the claim that the state LP board is trying to distance itself from the marijuana issue. He said, "I don't think so." However, he also said the state board is "trying to clean up the act of the LP." He said the board is "not advocating marijuana or anything else." I agree with his point: it's quite possible to condemn drug use or abuse while still calling for the repeal of prohibition. Fanshier seemed content to let spokespersons for the legalization of marijuana represent groups other than the LP. He said the LP would "work with other groups" on all kinds of issues, though.
A Soap Opera?
For some time the working title of this article was, "The Libertarian and the Restless." As I mentioned to Fanshier, I really believe some people are drawn to the LP (and all other kinds of small political movements) specifically because they want a platform to bitch without actually having to do anything useful on the political scene. Many, many times I have asked myself why I remain registered to vote as a Libertarian. It is often a real-life soap opera with the exception of interminably boring meetings. Not that this kind of nonsense doesn't exist with the major parties, but it seems to be limited by the orientation of success the major parties foster.
I was a libertarian long before I joined the Party, and I will remain a libertarian even should I decide to move in a different direction in politics. So I do get frustrated. But then I see people like Fanshier spending many hours a week, laboring for nothing but love of the principles, trying to build a tiny party into an effective political organization, I am moved. I hear about Steve D'Ippolito and Mike Seebeck, who volunteered to help Hickson commute to the state board meetings.
On Boyles' show, Shnelvar said, "What the country needs is freedom." With Senator Cairns and almost all of his fellow Republicans, freedom is merely rhetoric. "We need freedom, BUT..." There's always something they want to mandate or prohibit. Shnelvar has done some things and said some things that really annoy me, as have a lot of other Libertarians. But when he tells me that what the country needs is freedom, I believe he means it to the very core of his being.
Senator Cairns and Special Agent Sweetin believe the world will degenerate into chaos without their benevolent oversight. The libertarian philosophy is the only one that holds people are basically decent, and, when left in peace to lead their own lives, they'll usually do the right thing, or at least head out in basically the right direction.
Pettiness and personality disputes seem to plague all sorts of groups. Certainly the Libertarian Party and the broader libertarian movement are not immune. So why do I put up with it? Why should you put up with it? It's really very simple. The country needs freedom.