Legalization's March Continues, With Or Without Democrats To Lead It

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Nancy Pelosi just got re-elected to lead the House Democrats, but almost a third of them voted for a much younger representative who urged the party to shift focus in a major way. Hillary Clinton underperformed among minorities and young people, which contributed in a big way towards her loss in the presidential election. And Barack Obama, in a Rolling Stone "exit interview" just revived one of the major Democratic problems he ran against, by saying: "The point is that politics in a big, diverse country like this requires us to move the ball forward not in one long Hail Mary to the end zone, but to, you know, systemically make progress." This, from a man who ran on: "Yes we can!' as a campaign slogan.

Democrats are, obviously, in a phase of attempting to rediscover what their party stands for -- and how strongly they will stand for anything, as well. So far, the results are mixed, at best. Which leads me to (once again) suggest a rather obvious issue that would help Democrats with all of these problems: start supporting marijuana legalization in a big way. The time has come. It's time to stop timidly "leading from behind."

Right now, marijuana legalization is almost completely a non-partisan issue -- because most politicians (on both sides of the aisle) are scared of even addressing it in any meaningful way. What this means is that either party could champion it now, leaving the other party desperately trying to turn the clock backwards. To put this another way, if Democrats fail to act, Republicans might just steal the issue away from them -- which would give young voters an actual reason to vote for them. Think this is impossible? Imagine Donald Trump deciding one day to just let the states handle it -- and then imagine how the Republican Party would fall in line with his new thinking. It could indeed happen, in other words.

President Obama was actually talking about marijuana legalization in that quote, above. He had a lot to say on the issue, most of which was pretty disappointing. When the interviewer tried to compare the legalization issue with how Obama pushed the idea of gay marriage "right over the edge," Obama flatly disagreed, saying:

I don't think that's how it works. If you will recall, what happened was, first, very systematically, I changed laws around hospital visitation for people who were same-sex partners. I then assigned the Pentagon to do a study on getting rid of "don't ask, don't tell," which then got the buy-in of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and we were then able to [repeal] "don’t ask, don’t tell." We then filed a brief on Proposition 8 out in California. And then, after a lot of groundwork was laid, then I took a position.

This, sadly, is pretty accurate. Obama was never a champion of marriage equality in the 2008 campaign, and he had to be almost physically dragged into supporting the idea at all. In the midst of all this was a near-revolt from big-time Democratic donors (gay rights donors as well as wealthy Hollywood donors), which is what it took to finally get the Democratic Party to take the issue seriously at all. When the spigot of party donations was threatened, the party (and Obama) finally decided it had to take a real stand.

Hillary Clinton ran for president twice -- this year, and in 2008. In both instances, she actually campaigned as a pragmatic progressive, or "a progressive who can get things done." Freely translated, this meant: "Dream small!" It was exactly the same Hail Mary-versus-incrementalism position Obama just referenced, in fact. When forced to adopt some of the positions of Bernie Sanders, for instance, Clinton could not resist the urge to water them down considerably before she would even pretend to back them (such as settling for a $12-an-hour minimum wage, or making state college tuition free, but only for those families making a certain amount of money or less). Her entire campaign was an exercise in incrementalism, which failed to excite enough voters for her to win. Notably, she refused to even take a position on marijuana legalization, other than to timidly support tangential issues. Instead of leading on the issue, Clinton meekly called for "further study." Not exactly a bold stance, to put it mildly.

Just like gay marriage, full legalization of marijuana is still seen (by most Democratic officeholders) as some sort of "fringe position." It is not, but they haven't really noticed yet. Some Democrats can barely bring themselves to support medical marijuana, even though over half the states have now made it legal. While six in ten Americans believe marijuana should be just as legal (and as regulated) as alcohol, Democrats still cower in fear of voicing support for recreational legalization.

Legalization ballot initiatives don't have a perfect record of passing, but the trendline is pretty clear. To the best of my knowledge, four such ballot initiatives have failed, while nine have been successful. California tried first, but they put the referendum on a non-presidential-year ballot, and it failed. When Washington state and Colorado became the first two states to fully legalize, a very badly-written measure failed in Oregon. A ridiculously-biased (toward a permanent oligopoly) measure failed in Ohio a while back. And then this year, one more initiative failed, in Arizona.

So, out of the four failures, two were incredibly badly written, meaning they didn't get any support from marijuana reform advocacy groups. And in two out of the four states (California and Oregon), when the advocates tried again with a better-written measure, it passed. This means nine measures have now passed (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia), leaving only two states which have tried but failed (Ohio's laughably biased attempt, and the defeat this year in Arizona). As noted, the trendline is pretty clear.

We have now reached a tipping point of sorts. Previously, only states which don't get much attention on the East Coast had legalized recreational marijuana. Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington only have only 23 members in the House (five percent of the total). But there are now 91 members of the House of Representatives who hail from states that have voted to legalize recreational marijuana. That is 21 percent of the House, or over one-fifth of the total. That's not as easy to dismiss as some sort of fringe phenomenon.

Consider the changes this election has brought. Marijuana legalization has gone from being a geographic issue in the West to adding two East Coast states. Marijuana tourism will now be easily accessible by train (where baggage doesn't get searched) for most of the rest of the East Coast. Out West, Nevada has now legalized recreational use, meaning Las Vegas just got another big incitement to draw tourists out into the desert. And California is the biggest marketplace for legal weed yet, seeing as how the state's economy is the sixth-largest in the world, when measured against other countries. The floodgates may not be fully open, but I don't think anyone's going to be able to close them back up again at this point.

That's not to say the attempt won't be made, however. This will provide Democrats an even bigger opening, politically. Jeff Sessions, the nominee to lead the Justice Department, is an old-style drug warrior. He seems to personally despise marijuana, meaning the fate of both medical marijuana and recreational legalization is very much up in the air right now. A major crackdown could be on the horizon, unless Donald Trump reins Sessions in on the subject (Trump doesn't personally seem all that invested in the issue, one way or another).

Politically, Democrats are much better positioned to emerge as the champions of legalization. Six of those states that have legalized are solid blue, after all. Two of them are somewhat purple states (Nevada is definitely still a swing state, although Colorado seems to be getting ever-bluer), and only one is a Republican stronghold (Alaska). In many of the referenda, the vote total for legalization has been higher than Democrats who ran for office managed to get, showing the crossover appeal the issue has.

Marijuana reform voters are somewhat like Second Amendment enthusiasts in one key way: a lot of them are single-issue voters. They'll accept candidates with wide-ranging stances on other issues, but any candidate who doesn't support these voters' key issue simply will not get their vote. It's also a big motivator -- a lot of single-issue voters never vote at all unless their key issue is part of the election in some way. Marijuana reform voters are notable in one further way as well -- the younger the voter, the more support for the issue exists.

One big shift in this political debate may also be about to happen. "Big Marijuana" now exists, and it's about to get exponentially bigger. With markets like California, Massachusetts, and Nevada opening up, there's going to be a lot more legal money made in this growing industry (pun intended). There are already numerous super PACs pushing for marijuana reform (such as the Marijuana Policy Project PAC), whose purpose is to funnel donor money to pro-legalization candidates. So far, this has only had a modest effect, but if the industry quadruples in a single year's time then there may be a lot more donations heading to these super PACs in the very near future. And more money, in politics, means more influence. As with the gay rights advocates, at some point this level of donorship is going to have to be squarely dealt with by the Democratic Party, or else they're going to start losing their lifeblood. Rather than donating directly to the party, entertainment figures (Bill Maher, I am looking in your direction...), superstar musicians, and Hollywood bigwigs might instead opt to donate towards pro-legalization candidates more directly.

Leaving aside the broader picture of the Democratic Party's current woes, Democrats need to rediscover what it is like to be strongly for some forward-looking political issues. Marijuana reform needs to be one of these issues, in a big way. By getting out in front and championing legalization, Democrats could bring some excitement to otherwise-dull elections, they could motivate young voters to actually show up at the polls, and they could stand on what is clearly the future of marijuana law instead of timidly supporting the failed policies of the past. They also might reap a huge financial reward, as money begins flowing in from an industry that has previously never been able to legally participate in the American political process.

Democrats need to reject incrementalism. They need to realize that not only do Hail Mary passes sometimes work, but also that such boldness can actually be rewarded by the voters (especially when opposed to "let's just lead from behind again"). New ideas are sometimes good ideas, especially when they have the ability to convince voters who normally wouldn't vote for you (or would stay home and just not vote) that your party is on the right side of history.

By cherry-picking a quote from that Rolling Stone interview, you can see a glimmer of what might have been, when Obama wistfully stated: "I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it." However, he then inaccurately claimed that his hands were completely tied by Congress and the D.E.A. (neither of which is actually true). But that cherry-picked quote is exactly what must eventually happen, and exactly what Democrats everywhere should be getting behind. Legalization of marijuana -- completely ending the federal War On Weed, and leaving the issue up to the states to regulate, just like alcohol -- is precisely what the voters are now demanding. Six in ten Americans now agree marijuana should be regulated just like alcohol, in fact. Sixty percent! The voters are already out there leading on the issue. The Democrats can either join them at the front of the parade, or they will be left behind.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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