Elected officials take notice: support for drug policy reform, and even legalizing marijuana, is no detriment on the campaign trail -- and in fact it can be a key asset to electoral success.
Last night The Colbert Report picked up on a trend that has bubbled up in the past year -- candidates are winning elections by supporting drug policy reform. A growing chorus of political insiders are saying that President Obama could utilize marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington to turn out his base -- similar to the way Republicans used same-sex marriage bans to help George W. Bush win reelection in 2004.
There have been several major stories over the last month that give credence to this electoral trend:
A few weeks ago in Texas, a former El Paso city councilman, Beto O'Rourke - who had attracted national attention with his advocacy for marijuana legalization - defeated an eight-term incumbent, Silvestre Reyes, who had stoutly defended the drug war. In early 2009, O'Rourke championed a city council resolution calling for a national debate on the legal regulation of currently illicit drugs, prompting Congressman Reyes to threaten cutting off the city's federal funding if it passed. This led to a national discussion about drug policy reform that put O'Rourke in the spotlight for his support of reform.
Earlier last month, the Democratic primary for Attorney General in Oregon featured a similar dynamic. Ellen Rosenblum won a surprising victory over favorite Dwight Holton, in a race in which medical marijuana became a major issue. Rosenblum is supportive of patients' right to safe and legal access to medical marijuana, while her opponent, former Interim U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, is sharply critical of the state's program. Although Holton was heavily favored early in the race, he was targeted for defeat by supporters of medical marijuana after actively trying to undermine responsible state regulation.
Perhaps the most decisive indicator that drug policy reform has entered mainstream political discourse, though, came last week when Governor Cuomo of New York joined with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to unanimously support a formidable campaign to dramatically reduce the preposterous number of low-level marijuana arrests - more than 50,000 in 2011 alone - that has created a political firestorm throughout the state. Throughout his term, Cuomo has clearly been angling for the 2016 presidential ticket - which makes his support for marijuana reform especially noteworthy.
There is an exception to this trend, though - the 2012 presidential race. It's really quite extraordinary that neither major party candidate is willing to even discuss one of the most popular topics in U.S. politics. (To add to the absurdity, both Reuters and Associated Press published major articles last week about the implications of marijuana policy on the presidential election.) Whichever party that takes the lead on this issue is certain to pick up a significant number of votes, yet both major candidates appear content - so far - to leave those votes on the table.
While Stephen Colbert appears to "get it" and deserves credit for picking up on this trend, there's one point that he gets wrong: people don't just care about this issue because they want to get high.
If marijuana smokers were the only people who cared about this issue, it wouldn't be shaping the results of elections and polling at record numbers. Much more is at stake. The evisceration of our constitutional liberties. The human and economic costs of arresting more than 750,000 Americans every year for nothing more than a small amount of marijuana. The embarrassing, disgusting distinction America holds as the world's leader in mass incarceration, with more than 1 in 100 adults behind bars. The egregious racial disparities in drug law enforcement and sentencing, as communities of color bear the overwhelming brunt of the war on drugs. The prohibition-related violence in Mexico, Latin America and elsewhere that leads to tens of thousands of unnecessary, bloody deaths every year. These are just some of the reasons why marijuana policy reform is bubbling up into our national consciousness.
Drug policy reform is clearly no longer a third rail in American politics. Although marijuana reform is often compared with same-sex marriage as another emerging political issue on the cusp of mainstream acceptance, support for marijuana reform is actually considerably stronger. Strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say the federal government should not interfere with state medical marijuana laws, 74 percent of Americans support alternatives to incarceration for marijuana possession, and a majority of Americans now even support legally regulating marijuana similar to alcohol.
Some people might still think that marijuana prohibition is a fringe issue - but if any of these people run for office, they'd better watch their back. The drug policy reform movement is on the verge of being not just respected - but feared.
Jag Davies is publications manager for Drug Policy Action.
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