TOPEKA — As Republicans sort out their nomination for governor and attention turns to whether the Democrat or independent candidate could play the role of spoiler in November, another choice intends to gain traction by stoking the hot box of marijuana debate.
Jeff Caldwell, the Libertarian candidate for governor, promises to pardon every nonviolent reefer offender, an action he says would save the state $20 million by freeing up resources within the criminal justice system.
The Leawood resident also sees the full legalization of cannabis — recreational, medical and industrial — as the key to solving the state's budget puzzle. His proposal is to regulate the drug with the same oversight as the sale of alcohol.
"We have to look at it from an individual freedom perspective," Caldwell said. "If you look at prohibition, prohibition created terrible gang violence within the mafia, and that allowed for crime to thrive. But once prohibition ended, that went away. Right now, we have a lot of crime going on because of cannabis and the war on drugs."
Caldwell talked to Capitol Insider — the podcast of The Topeka Capital-Journal — about what it means to be a Libertarian.
The party has more than 16,000 registered voters in Kansas. They installed Caldwell as their nominee for governor at a convention in April.
His political background flows from initial support for former President Barack Obama, believing he would bring troops home and end spying on citizens. He attended an Obama watch party, where he was encouraged to research a broader range of candidates. That's when he said he discovered former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and his ideas about free market economics.
"We also have an outlook where we have increased government spending, but they haven't told us how we're going to pay for it yet, so that's eventually going to lead to higher taxation," Caldwell said of the current outlook in Kansas.
Caldwell's platform calls for the elimination of sales tax on food and water, lowering of private property tax, and cuts to economic incentives programs for corporations.
But the centerpiece of his agenda is granting people the liberty to wake and bake without running afoul of the law.
He said he reached 500,000 Kansans with a Facebook post on April 20 that featured his merchandise emblazoned with a marijuana leaf. He ended up with about 17,000 followers on his Facebook page, compared to 9,000 for Gov. Jeff Colyer and 20,000 for Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whose bid for the GOP nomination could be delayed by a recount or litigation. Independent Greg Orman has 27,000 followers, while Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, has nearly 7,000.
Lost in the political haze, Caldwell said, is the reality that half the state supports recreational marijuana and three-quarters approve of legalizing the drug for medicinal use.
"I don't understand what the fear is of the politicians who are running against me not coming out in support of full legalization," Caldwell said. "As of right now, I am the only candidate on the ballot talking about this."
He lamented tax increases the Legislature passed in 2016 and 2017 to bolster revenue while increasing funding for public schools. The state also took on bond debt to shore up funds for pensions and transportation, and he wondered about the long-term stability of the budget.
In particular, he took exception to state and local sales taxes rates that exceed 10 percent in some areas without an exemption for food.
"That is theft," Caldwell said. "If you go to the store and you buy necessity items, and you're being taxed at 10 percent, if you spend $100, that's $10. That's a lunch out. Not only does it affect the less fortunate, it affects the middle class. If you do that multiple times a month, that could add up to a family dinner."
Revenue from marijuana would help, he said, along with the legalization of sports betting. Additionally, he wants to keep a close eye on lawmakers "who vote a certain way because they get a back scratch."