After years in the political wilderness, marijuana lobbyists find themselves in a strange position as 2014 approaches: Suddenly their power and support are growing, lawmakers are courting them, and the prospects look brighter to build on major progress the movement made in 2012.
Last year, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana, the first states to do so. Those victories have bestowed new legitimacy on the cannabis community, giving it a better field on which to fight. By engaging in political-money games, endorsing candidates, confederating cannabis-related businesses, and old-fashioned lobbying, the pot movement is working to expand the playing field to more states and confront the federal government’s long-standing and entrenched opposition to marijuana infrastructure head on. Campaigners hope to make legalization the sort of social issue candidates have to take a stand on, just as gay marriage and abortion before it became crucial litmus tests.
“We have a bunch of stereotypes about the marijuana movement and lobbying effort as a bunch of college kids who want to smoke weed,” says John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “The marijuana lobby is coming out of the shadows from this avant-garde movement to people who are thinking about legalization in a very rational, serious, and empirical way.”
Public opinion about marijuana use has evolved rapidly in just a few years. Only 32 percent of the population views getting high as morally wrong, down 18 percent since 2006, according to the Pew Research Center. The same study found almost half of the population has tried cannabis at one point and support for legalization is soaring. For the first time in the nation’s history, the majority of Americans support legalization.
Erik Altieri, director of communications for NORML, the elder statesman of the legalization movement since the 1970s, says the biggest shift is in the public psyche. “Marijuana legislation has gone from something very abstract and something you may have supported to something very real and also possible,” he says. “And it’s happening.”
The movement is often compared to the early stages of the fight for marriage equality, where five years ago there were only two states where same-sex marriage was legal and now there are 16. The legalization movement is growing not just in power but size, there are four major national groups lobbying for legalization, each with its own associated PAC.