Politicians Are Shooting Themselves in the Foot by Opposing Marijuana Legalization

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April 7, 2014 - By Tony Newman

A majority of Americans support marijuana legalization – yet not one sitting governor or U.S. Senator supports it, according to a New York Times piece.

Marijuana prohibition is a disastrous failure. 43 years after President Nixon launched the “war on drugs,” the U.S. arrests 650,000 people a year for marijuana possession – yet marijuana and other illegal drugs are as available as ever. Thanks to the drug war, the U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population, yet nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.

Colorado and Washington made history in 2012 becoming the first states – and the first two political jurisdictions anywhere in the world – to legally regulate the production and distribution of marijuana, and many states are looking to follow soon. National polls showing majority support for marijuana legalization have been confirmed in states across the country – and not just in states you’d expect but even in Florida, Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Texas.

It’s inspiring to see the evolution of American public opinion, but disgusting to see the cowardice from our “leaders.” The Times story featured Democratic Governors Jerry Brown (California), Andrew Cuomo (New York) and Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire) all going against their constituents by defending marijuana prohibition.

Why would they continue to support marijuana prohibition, especially when polls show that voters overwhelmingly want marijuana legalized? In the Times piece, DPA’s Ethan Nadelmann said, “The fear of being soft on drugs, soft on marijuana, soft on crime is woven into the DNA of American politicians, especially Democrats.”

But this is an outdated view. Can anyone name a politician in recent years who was hurt politically because they supported commonsense drug policy reform? I can’t think of any.

As prominent democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said in the same Times piece, “There is little evidence in most states that a politician would pay a price for supporting legalization. We’ve moved into a frame that’s not ideological. It’s about a system being broken, not working, and that legalization involves strict regulation that would allow the state to collect revenues. That makes a lot of sense to the kind of voters that electeds are most concerned about. If that’s the way it’s being discussed, it isn’t a liability for a politician.”

The growing momentum for marijuana legalization is often compared to the sea change of support for marriage equality. Support for both have taken off on similar trajectories. It has become clear to Democrats that supporting marriage equality is not only the right thing morally, but the right thing career-wise. This wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago President Obama, former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and others were much more cautious.

It’s telling that California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom, became one of the highest state-level officials to publically support of marijuana legalization. A decade ago, Newsom gained national attention as one of the most prominent politicians to support marriage equality.

It’s also telling that since the Obama administration gave the green light to Colorado and Washington’s efforts to legalize marijuana, and spoke out forcefully against mass incarceration, it has received almost universal praise with no negative political consequences.

It’s time for elected officials to take notice that support for drug policy reform and legalizing marijuana has no downside – and in fact, it can be a key asset to electoral success. In many places around the country, candidates are winning support and winning elections by supporting marijuana and drug policy reform.

Let’s hope that if the people keep leading, the leaders will soon follow. If not, many of those so-called leaders will be looking for new jobs.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)

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