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There's Been a Tectonic Shift on Marijuana Across the US, Except in Washington -- Why Can't We Pop the Beltway Bubble?

More Americans and local politicians than ever before are demanding an end to marijuana prohibition -- but for change to happen, we need federal officials to start listening.
 
 
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America is at a tipping point when it comes to the politics of pot. Never in modern history has there existed greater public support for ending this nation’s nearly century-long experiment with cannabis prohibition and replacing it with a system legalization and regulation. Moreover, state and local politicians beyond the ‘Beltway bubble’ for the first time in many decades are responding to this sea change in public opinion, even if their colleagues in Washington are not. From Rhode Island to Texas, from New York City to Chicago, lawmakers are finally acknowledging that being pro-pot reform equals votes. The question is: Why isn’t Washington getting the message?

It certainly isn’t due to a lack of public polling on the issue. Just the opposite: recent, high profile national polls affirm that voters are now solidly in favor of ending the war on weed. For example, a fall 2011 nationwide Gallup poll reported that for the first time more Americans support legalizing the adult use of cannabis than support maintaining prohibition. How far have we come? Consider this. In 1969, when Gallup pollsters first surveyed American’s attitudes on the topic, only 12 percent of voters said that they backed legalizing pot. Even in the late 1970s – at a time during which a dozen state legislatures decriminalized minor marijuana possession offenses (largely replacing criminal penalties with a fine only civil citation) and most others reduced cannabis-related felonies to misdemeanors – public support for marijuana legalization never topped 30 percent. Not anymore. Over the past 10 years, there has been a seismic shift in public opinion, with every single demographic polled by Gallup steadily showing year-to-year increased support for cannabis liberalization.

Polling data published in May by the well-respected firm Rasmussen Reports is even more favorable. Rasmussen reported that 56 percent of Americans support "legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol or cigarettes" while only 34 percent oppose the idea. Every age group polled, including those age 65 and older, favored the plant’s legalization over its continued criminalization.

Separate survey data collected by Canadian pollsters Angus Reid further affirm this trend. According to their most recent survey, published last month, a solid majority of US adults – Democrat and Independent voters in particular – support legalizing cannabis. It is the fourth consecutive survey conducted by Angus Reid to report that over 50 percent of Americans favor legalizing pot.

Nonetheless, most federally elected officials appear to be unaware of – or more likely, remain unwilling to accept – this relatively rapid evolution in public opinion. A case in point: in recent months, the Obama administration has ramped up a nationwide crackdown on medical marijuana providers and dispensaries operating in states that allow for the drug’s therapeutic use. In some states, such as Delaware, US Attorneys have stifled the imposition of medicinal cannabis programs that allow for the state-licensed distribution of the plant – activities that are explicitly authorized under state law – by threatening to arrest and prosecute state employees involved the regulation of med-pot providers.

Yet, according to a May 2012 Mason Dixon poll of likely US voters, virtually no Americans support the administration’s clamp down on cannabis. Seventy-four percent of respondents – including three out of four Democrats and 67 percent of self-identified Republicans – believe that the Obama administration should “respect the medical marijuana laws” in those states that have legalized its use, cultivation, and distribution. Only 15 percent of those polled said they support the federal government's ongoing use of “federal resources to arrest and prosecute individuals who are acting in compliance” with the medicinal cannabis laws of their state. Nevertheless, just days prior to the poll’s release, members of the United States House of Representatives voted 262 to 163 to defeat a federal budget amendment that sought to prevent the federal government from spending taxpayers' dollars to target state compliant medical marijuana-related activities, despite the reality that most of their constituents opposed their decision to do so. 

Can federal officials and their advisors really be this out of touch with the public’s weed wishes? They may be. Speaking to Reuters in June, Colorado Democratic Party spokesman Matt Inzeo played down the notion that the administration’s anti-pot proclivities might potentially hurt Obama’s re-election bid, particularly in Western states that have embraced certain aspects of marijuana law reform at the ballot box. When asked to comment on the state’s impending ballot measure – Amendment 64 – which seeks to remove criminal penalties regarding the private possession and cultivation of cannabis and eventually allow for the plant’s regulated sale, Inzeo responded skeptically, “If they (A-64’s campaign proponents) get 40 percent (of the vote) they should throw themselves a party.” (Not to be outdone, at a recent Colorado campaign stop, Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney chastised a CBS News reporter for querying him about his pot politics, angrily stating, “Aren't there issues of significance that you'd like to talk about?”) Days later, a statewide Rasmussen Reports showed a remarkable 61 percent of voters endorsed cannabis legalization (versus only 27 percent who opposed idea). Predictably, separate polling data collected by Rasmussen during this same period found that neither Obama nor Romney was nearly as popular as the prohibited plant.

For those of us who work in marijuana policy reform, this disconnect between the public’s attitudes and the actions (or inactions) of their elected officials is especially vexing. For some time, a primary component of NORML's stated mission has been to move public opinion sufficiently to achieve the repeal of marijuana prohibition. But now that we have arguably done so, another, perhaps tougher, question remains: How do we turn the public’s sentiment into effective public policy reform? In short, will cannabis consumers and the marijuana law reform community as a whole ever become a persuasive and powerful player in Washington, DC politics?

While the answer to the above question is, ideally, ‘yes,’ the reality is that this change will arguably take place slowly. Marijuana law reform does not lend itself well to the standard rules that typically govern inside-the-Beltway politics. The majority of cannabis consumers are not single-issue voters and thus they are not readily identifiable by either major political party as a significant potential voting block. They tend to cast their vote based on a plethora of other ideological and public policy issues – such as health care reform, environmental reform, foreign policy, economic issues, and candidates’ support for civil liberties – with pot law reform tending to rank fairly low on their priority list. As a result, many supporters of marijuana law reform, come election time, will ultimately choose a candidate who they disagree with on pot, but concur with on other issues. Since, for most voters, cannabis is yet to be a ‘deciding issue,’ it is hardly surprising that most candidates refuse to take a stand on the issue in any manner beyond the maintenance of the status quo.

Further, those people who tend to be most adversely and disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition, primarily those under age 30 and young, urban people of color, tend to wield the least political influence in Washington, DC. Young people typically do not have the ear of federally elected politicians, who tend to dismiss many political issues associated with the ‘youth vote’ in favor politicking for seniors’ support; they do not attend political galas and fundraisers, and they typically lack the financial means to contribute directly to candidates’ election campaigns or their PACS. In short, they are not on members of Congress’ radar. Similarly, these same young people also lack the financial means to fund the limited number of marijuana advocacy organizations, such as NORML and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, that lobby on their behalf. Conversely, those citizens who typically do possess the financial means and the political clout to elevate cannabis law reform to the political mainstream are, statistically, least likely to be adversely impacted by pot prohibition. Therefore, they are far less likely to acknowledge it as a political issue worthy of investing their financial and political capital.

Equally problematic are the existing social stigma and legal repercussion surrounding cannabis. Unlike most conventional voting blocks, many cannabis consumers do not wish to identify themselves publicly to politicians or to the media. Their fear is warranted. Annually, over 800,000 Americans are cited or arrested for violating marijuana laws. Further, in many instances, cannabis consumers can lose professional licenses, parental rights, housing, adoption privileges, and other liberties simply for acknowledging that they use (or, in extreme cases, simply advocate on behalf of) the plant. Given this reality, it is no wonder that millions of Americans keep their pot habits or advocacy safely hidden in the closet. Their inaction, however, allows their elected leaders to continue to falsely presume that cannabis law reform is a ‘fringe’ issue of little concern to ‘ordinary’ American voters.

As a result, there exists an echo chamber among politicians (and their strategists) inside-the-Beltway that believes that advocating for marijuana law reform costs politicians votes. Yet, despite many hailing this mentality as ‘conventional wisdom,’ there is little to no truth behind it. (By contrast, there is growing evidence that just the opposite is true.) Notably, a handful of high-profile politicians from both political parties – including US Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN), Barney Frank (D-MA), James Moran (D-VA), Ron Paul (R-TX), Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Peter Stark (D-CA) – have actively lobbied for marijuana law reform while in Congress and have suffered no tangible backlash from voters for their pro-pot stance. Even more to the point, President Barack Obama as a candidate repeatedly spoke out in favor of marijuana law reform, most notably pledging to cease utilizing “Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws” regarding medical cannabis (a pledge he has since broken). Yet not even Obama’s political opponents, much less American voters, held it against him.

So why has the administration flip-flopped on the issue in the months prior to Obama’s re-election? Good question, though the answer may be fairly straightforward. Inside the Beltway bubble, old habits are hard to break, even among those who ought to know better.

Fortunately, outside the Beltway, this mentality may be changing, as politicians and their political parties are finally beginning to embrace the potential power of the pro-pot vote. In Rhode Island, state lawmakers decided in June by a vote of more than 2 to 1 to approve legislation decriminalizing marijuana possession (replacing criminal penalties with a civil fine) for anyone age 18 or older. Similarly, in May, lawmakers from both major political parties in Connecticut backed legislation authorizing the limited legalization of cannabis in the Nutmeg state. In New Hampshire, Republican lawmakers led the charge for medical marijuana law reform, voting overwhelmingly in favor of legislation that sought to allow for qualified patients to possess and cultivate med-pot  (though the measure was ultimately vetoed by Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat.)

New York Governor and rising Democrat Party superstar Andrew Cuomo recently made headlines across the nation by publicly endorsing a plan to curb New York City’s 50,000+ annual marijuana arrests. Chicago Mayor, and former pot prohibitionist during the Bill Clinton administration, Rahm Emmanuel made similar headlines when he reversed his previous stance and backed a municipal legislative effort seeking to decriminalize marijuana possession offenses. In June, members of the Chicago City Council resounding approved Emmanuel’s plan by a vote of 43 to 3.

In various other states – including Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, and Washington – Democrats have recently adopted pro-marijuana reform language into their party platforms. In Iowa, Democrat Party delegates in June resolved to support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, while in Texas, Democrats endorsed legalizing the plant for anyone, resolving: “Marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. … There is no evidence that marijuana is a “gateway” drug leading to the use of more lethal drugs. … Texas Democrats urge the President, the Attorney General and the Congress to support the passage of legislation to … regulate its (marijuana’s) use, production and sale as is done with tobacco and alcohol.”

Across America, more and more politicians are awakening to the reality that supporting cannabis law reform isn’t just the right thing to do, but that it also makes for good politics. Isn’t it high time that their colleagues in Washington also get with the program?