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Legal Marijuana is Far from Inevitable

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Above: Photo of two young women smoking marijuana in a park in Leakey, Texas. From the EPA Documerica series of the 1970s.

In the 1970s, marijuana legalization proponents were very confident that legalization would happen soon. Young Carter advisers were smoking with activists, Willie Nelson was getting stoned on the roof of the White House, and it seemed the nation would turn a corner and legalize this drug that is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.

To say the least, that did not happen. The War on Drugs that dominated American politics in the 1980s and 1990s has led to an incredibly destructive war largely focused on people of color that has cost trillions of dollars and ruined nearly countless lives.

In the last few years, it has seemed like, once again, marijuana legalization is inevitable. The largely successful rollout of legal marijuana in Colorado and Washington undercut many of the arguments of opponents. It has since spread to Oregon, Alaska, California, and Nevada, with Massachusetts and Maine next. It has pumped a lot of tax money into the states and created a lot of jobs. While I hate hippies and stoner culture with the kind of passion that only comes from growing up in a blue-collar town next to hippie central, the only negative of this as far as I can tell from the last 4 months I have spent in Oregon is that hippies are around. Which is exactly the same as before.

Moreover, this success and the libertarian side of American culture that is strong with young people, often for worse but in this case for better, has led to growing support for legal marijuana that is at the verge of becoming a flood. Many more states are likely to legalize in the next decade if the government allows it, probably a majority.

But nothing is inevitable in history. Everything is always struggle. No battle is ever won, as we are seeing from Republicans trying to repeal a whole century of progressive gains in four years. And thus, we have racist elf Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III now moving to get rid of legal marijuana. He may well succeed.

That said, I feel good about the odds this time, much better than anyone had any reason to in 1978. That’s because even those who opposed the law in legalized states are now actively supporting it, and that includes leading Republicans. Colorado Republicans are in total freakout mode, with Cory Gardner, who knows he is a dead man walking in 2020 if he isn’t lucky, apoplectic.

That’s a strong statement. And if you think that the goal of the Trump administration is to damn the torpedos and blow up the Republicans’ future in exchange for implementing a right-wing social and economic regime that will take the nation back decades, you are absolutely right. This is utterly disastrous for Republicans’ future with young voters. They don’t care. They are willing to take the chance that even if they lose power, they will get it back soon enough and keep pushing us back. Given that a Democratic candidate might be a woman or *gasp* have questionable e-mail server management issues, they are probably smart about this. But the risk of long-term wipeout is high. Thus, I agree with Sean McElwee’s take that Democrats in 2018 should absolutely run on full legalization.

Yet, as the 2018 midterms approach, the Democratic party has been strangely slow to embrace the issue. Indeed, the party waited until 2016 to put a tepid plank of support in the platform after minimal attention from Democratic politicians (and even some push-back during key House votes). Even as Democrats become more supportive of legal marijuana (though not universally) they are hesitant to embrace it in campaign ads. During her presidential run, Hillary Clinton exemplified this cautiousness with her support for a state-by-state approach to “learn what works.” (Her Democratic opponent Senator Bernie Sanders, in contrast, argued the U.S. should “take marijuana off the federal government’s list of outlawed drugs.”)

To put it simply, liberals’ slow evolution on the issue is hurting the party; It’s clear Democrats could easily turn marijuana into a winning issue. According to Gallup polling, 64 percent of Americans now support legal marijuana, and the issue polls well across parties: 72 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Independents and 51 percent of Republicans now support legal marijuana.

The issue is a smart play for several reasons. First, it has the potential to fire up the liberal base at a crucial time, particularly the young voters that Democrats need to win in the 2018 midterms (when the electorate is often older). I analyzed American National Election Studies 2016 data, and found that 61 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana (excluding individuals who said “don’t know”). Legalizing marijuana was particularly popular with under-40-year-olds, according to the data I analyzed, with 74 percent supporting legalizing marijuana; 53 percent of those 40 or older also support legalization.

Marijuana would also allow Democrats to show their commitment to criminal justice reform. While no one believes that legalizing marijuana would solve mass incarceration, studies show that though black and white people use marijuana at similar rights, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Democrats have been hurt by low turnout among young people of color, and a meaningful commitment to rolling back the so-called war on drugs would send a welcome signal. It’s not surprising that Cory Booker, a young progressive Senator with an interest in criminal justice reform has centered marijuana legalization in his legislative efforts.

Legalizing marijuana would also be an effective way to fund important Democratic initiatives. In Colorado, the revenues from legal marijuana have topped $500 million, money that could easily help support progressive priorities like universal Pre-K and affordable college tuition options.

There’s no question that hesitant Democratic politicians who came of age in the 70s-00s are really scared of leading here. They remember the politics of the War on Drugs. But it’s almost certainly a winner. The polling just demonstrates the power of the issue and it goes up every year. I don’t think this will actually happen–lots of Democrats in legalization states have opposed it up to the point of the vote and even after. But this is a really smart move for Democrats to get ahead on. And a lot of 2020 potential nominees such as Booker and Harris and Warren have done so, criticizing Sessions sharply.

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