For far too long, most politicians have operated under the (false) notion that supporting efforts to reform marijuana laws amounted to political suicide. But nowadays--as public support for reform continues to grow at a record pace--there are increasing signs that the movement to end marijuana prohibition is reaching a crucial threshold for victory: Political strategists are beginning to realize that candidates can not only benefit from supporting pro-legalization efforts, but suffer for opposing them.
Already this election season, we have seen two major statewide political groups--the California NAACP and the Washington state Democratic Party--endorse state ballot initiatives that would make marijuana legal for adults.
Then this weekend in San Jose, the California Democratic Party voted to remain neutral on November's Proposition 19 ballot measure despite widespread internal support, almost entirely out of concern that endorsing legalization would harm the party's anti-legalization candidates, among them Sen. Barbara Boxer and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown. Many other Democratic officials have already endorsed the initiative on their own, and the L.A. Times reports, "despite taking a cautious stance, [the Democrats] appeared solidly behind the initiative, cheering and whooping much more raucously for the pro-endorsement speakers."
Consider the pitch made by just one of those speakers:
Robert Cruickshank, public policy director for the Courage Campaign, which backs progressive causes, called for the vote in an attempt to overturn a party committee's recommendation to adopt a neutral position. He started by reminding the assembled Democrats that the party's chairman, former San Francisco state Sen. John Burton, has said pot was the issue that would motivate young voters to go to the polls in this off-year election.
"If we endorse Proposition 19 and take a courageous position to support reform, just as we took courageous positions on same-sex marriage and other contentious issues, we will win the moral argument, we will win Proposition 19 and we will win races in November," Cruickshank said.
Others have pointed out that marijuana ballot initiatives could help Democratic voter turnout overall as well. Earlier this month, on an apparent "tip from an Obama official," The Atlantic's Joshua Green discovered "a few Democratic consultants who have become convinced that ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana, like the one Californians will vote on in November, actually help Democrats in the same way that gay marriage bans were supposed to have helped Republicans."
This strategy falls short, however, when Democrats fail to support marijuana initiatives. MPP's Steve Fox has already hypothesized that single-issue California voters who turn out in favor of Proposition 19 could also vote against Brown because of his opposition to the initiative ("Vote Green, Not Brown"). Now the state Democratic Party seems to share that concern.
And it's not just Democrats who see opportunity in supporting sensible marijuana policies. Right now in Connecticut there is a GOP primary race for the state's 4th Congressional District, in which two candidates' opposing views on marijuana policy are emerging as a potential campaign issue. Both candidates--Rick Torres and Rob Merkle--say they have used marijuana in the past, but only one, Torres, favors taxing and regulating the drug. Merkle, whose father prosecuted and sent to jail major drug traffickers, wants it to remain illegal. Torres says that makes Merkle a hypocrite.
The following is an unfortunately buried lede in an otherwise predictable article about feigned "outrage" over the recent finding that Merkle was arrested for marijuana possession more than 10 years ago.
Torres said that what disturbs him about the arrest is that Merkle and his campaign blasted Torres for his stance on marijuana laws. Torres said he favors legalization.
Merkle said he does not -- a stance, in light of his arrest and lenient treatment, that Torres said he finds hypocritical.
Whether that difference will benefit either candidate remains to be seen. But with marijuana measures on the ballot this year in California, Arizona, South Dakota, Oregon, and Detroit, and even more expected for 2012, don't be surprised to read about more candidates trying to court the steadily growing number of voters who no longer support policies that squander law enforcement resources and criminalize otherwise law-abiding adults simply for using a recreational substance that is safer than alcohol.
Politically, it might be in their best interest.