DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: I don’t smoke marijuana, a fact that many Americans no doubt consider a criminal waste of a three-year residency in the Netherlands. But I support others’ right to do so! And it looks like a majority of Americans now agree with me. Pew reports that for the first time since it started asking the question in 1969, Americans solidly support marijuana legalization, by a 58% to 39% margin. The number favoring legalization has been growing steadily for decades, but it jumped 10% in just the last year, a move Pew hypotheses may be linked to the states of Washington and Colorado passing laws last year that legalize marijuana for recreational use. As so often happens in such cases, the act of government legalization itself confers public legitimacy, the absence of which was previously the chief political obstacle to legalization.
What happens next? Jonathan Bernstein thinks “Democrats have a weed fight coming.” Democratic candidates will be tempted by electoral self-interest to come out for legalisation in order to distinguish themselves from opponents, since 65% of Democratic voters in the Pew poll support it. Ultimately, he thinks, it may become an issue in the 2016 presidential primaries, and if pro-legalisation candidates are successful Hillary Clinton may feel pressure to move that way as well. As for Republicans, Mr Bernstein thinks a few libertarian candidates may come out for legalisation, but “for the most part, it’s still going to be a loser there.” Just 35% of Republicans support legalization, according to Pew.
I assume Mr Bernstein is focusing on Democratic primaries as the initial locus for competition over this issue because primary candidates will need to make a calculation about their district’s overall complexion. Embracing legalization may or may not win them the primary, depending on how much Democratic voters care about it, but it could also lose them the general election. That makes it worth looking at the third key bloc in the Pew poll: 62% of independents back legalisation, nearly as high a rate as Democrats. This suggests that legalization could be a winning issue in the general election as well as the Democratic primary. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Most self-described independents actually lean Republican; many pro-legalisation independents may be tea-party libertarians who would never vote for a Democrat. A Democratic candidate who comes out for legalisation could lose the votes of some older Democrats while failing to gain many independents. It’s a risky issue.
For Barack Obama and the executive branch, the political landscape is much clearer: there is little percentage in continuing to enforce aggressive federal anti-marijuana legislation. That clearly played into the Justice Department’s decision in August not to aggressively oppose the new Washington and Colorado laws. The final question, though, is how the issue will play out in Congress. And we’re already getting an early taste of some of the oddball partnerships that could develop. Yesterday Cory Booker, the Newark mayor who was just elected as New Jersey’s new Democratic senator, announced he was reaching out to Rand Paul, the libertarian Republican senator from Kentucky, over an initiative to loosen mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenders.
“I want to work with him,” said Mr. Booker, about Mr. Paul, during an interview Tuesday at his campaign office in the city he led as mayor for seven years. “I take everybody in the Senate as sincere people who want to make a difference.”
Mr. Paul—a tea-party leader seen as a possible 2016 Republican presidential contender—endorsed Mr. Booker’s challenger, Steve Lonegan, in the Oct. 16 Senate election. But a spokeswoman for Mr. Paul on Tuesday welcomed Mr. Booker’s gesture.
“Senator Paul would be pleased to work with any member who believes that mandatory minimum sentencing is unnecessary,” the spokeswoman said. “He looks forward to Senator Booker’s assistance on this important issue.”
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Mr Booker is no starry-eyed ingenue, and he does not actually believe everybody in the Senate is a sincere person who wants to make a difference. The statement that he plans to take them that way is a matter of positioning. In any case, the relationship between Mr Booker and Mr Paul is a template for how the legalization movement is likely to play out at the level of partisan politics. Mr Booker has endorsed medical marijuana and ultimately wants to “go beyond that” to decriminalize marijuana use entirely. As a Republican, Mr Paul has had to tread a much more careful line; he has said he opposes legalizing marijuana, even for medical use, but wants to eliminate prison terms for users, and to leave other questions up to the states. The bill he introduced in March, along with Pat Leahy, the Democratic senator from Vermont, is pretty modest. It would give courts a “safety valve” to waive federal minimum sentences for non-violent offenders in cases where the punishment would be unreasonable.
Due to the residual strength of anti-drug sentiments in the GOP, it may be difficult for Mr Paul to go much further than that. Mr Booker, meanwhile, just won an election on a platform of legalisation. Given the partisan divide among voters, and the potential to exploit legalisation as a wedge issue dividing Republican libertarians from traditional conservatives, Democrats are likely to make this issue a battleground over the next few years.
(Photo credit: AFP)