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Will Drug Policy Play a Role in the 2012 Elections?

Romney and Obama are not too different when it comes to marijuana and drug policy.

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Since there is little substantive difference in the drug policy positions of the two front-runners and since their positions on marijuana legalization put them at odds with half the country -- 50% now support legalization, according to the most recent Gallup poll -- neither candidate has much incentive to open his mouth on the issue. And they may be able to get away with it.

"Can the campaigns get away with not talking about marijuana?" Drug Policy Action head Ethan Nadelmann asked rhetorically. "That depends. First, will the question get popped at one of the debates? I don't know how to influence that. The second possibility will be if the candidates are obliged to answer a question somewhere, but I don't know how much they're taking questions -- their handlers are trying to keep them on message. The third possibility is that they will say something at private events, but who knows what gets said there?" he mused.

"They are certainly going to try not to talk about it," said Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Given Romney's anger at a reporter for bringing up the issue and Obama's reluctance to address questions about marijuana policy in public forums, one can expect them to continue this behavior until forced to answer questions by the media or the public."

That leaves voters for whom marijuana reform is an important issue hanging out to dry.

"Unless one of the candidates sees an opportunity for a large boost in support by changing his position on marijuana policy, voters will be forced to choose between either third party candidates or the major party option that they think will do the least amount of damage to reform efforts going forward," said Fox. "If we consider Obama's behavior so far and Romney's staunch anti-marijuana statements (as well as the fact that he has never used it) it becomes a really difficult choice for voters."

Nadelmann begged to differ on that point.

"Romney has been more hostile on this issue than McCain or Bush or any Democratic candidates since Bush the Elder," he said. "He is visibly uncomfortable and even hostile regarding even the most modest drug policy reforms. Romney said if you want to legalize marijuana, you should vote for the other guy. That's very telling, with over 50% of independents and even more than 30% of Republicans supporting marijuana legalization. Why would Romney say that? The Obama campaign would have a hard time running with this, but someone else could."

Still, the lack of space between the major party candidates on the issue may leave an opening for Anderson or Johnson or Stein, Fox said.

"These candidates are the only ones offering real solutions to the quagmire of marijuana prohibition, or even taking definitive stances on the issue. The more they continue to draw public attention to marijuana reform while the major players stay silent, the more we can expect voters to pay attention to them and take them seriously," he predicted. "We can also expect their vocal support for reform to draw the attention of the major candidates and possibly elicit some sort of positive response from one or both of them. Whether that response will be sincere or simply lip-service to prevent third-party candidates from siphoning votes in key elections remains to be seen. However, even the latter would be a sign that the message is getting out and that politicians are at least starting to realize where the public stands on marijuana."

The one place where marijuana policy discussion may be unavoidable and where marijuana policy positions could influence the statewide electoral outcome is Colorado. Marijuana is a big issue in the state, not only because Amendment 64 is on the ballot, but also because of the ongoing war of attrition waged against dispensaries there by the DEA and the US Attorney. (The Colorado Patient Voters Project tracks federal activity against medical marijuana in the state, as does our own Medical Marijuana Update series, accessible with other relevant reporting in our medical marijuana archive section.)