Wednesday, June 20, 2012

June 2012: The new direction of marijuana politics?

Jill Harris, managing director of strategic initiatives at Drug Policy Action (the political arm of the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance), has an op-ed in USATODAY on June 20, 2012 that concludes that key Democratic office holders and a couple of key primaries are the "weather vane" pointing to the political logic of marijuana decriminalization specifically and reform more generally.

The policy case for marijuana decriminalization is over 40 years old now. The concept was advanced by the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse in its 1972, and about a dozen states enacted such laws in the early 1970s. Ms. Harris is making an excellent political case that this reform is once again politically safe; indeed politically astute.

I am thrilled that she was able to have this op-ed published in one of the most important newspapers. But I would be much more confident if this op-ed column had been authored by a professional political commentator. If so, political advisers to the President and Democratic candidates would probably pay closer attention.

Consider some history of marijuana and politics. A key prize in President Bill Clinton's successful campaign for re-election in 1996 was California, which he won with 51%. (President Georg H.W. Bush won California in 1988 with 51%, but Clinton won California in 1992, with only 46%). That year, the medical marijuana initiative, Proposition 215, received one million more votes than Bill Clinton! In 2004, George Bush won re-election in Montana as voters there passed a medical marijuana initiative. And in 2008, as Obama carried Michigan, voters passed a medical marijuana initiative. Blue state, red state -- it doesn't matter.

In May 2011, the legislatures of three states sent medical marijuana legislation to their governors, who signed the laws. In recent weeks, Connecticut became the 17th medical marijuana state, the New Hampshire legislature sent a medical marijuana act to their governor (who has threatened a veto), and Rhode Island's legislature enacted a marijuana decriminalization law. (And as I noted earlier, the candidates more sympathetic to marijuana reform won primary elections in Oregon and Texas!)

In 2007 and 2008, the Obama political team outmaneuvered the premier national political machine of the past 20 years, the Clinton organization, to snatch the Democratic nomination. As incumbent, he has been unchallenged for renomination in his party. But it is clear that he has failed to re-energize the young people who rallied and volunteered for him. When it comes to marijuana, the administration of Barack Obama seems to think the zeitgeist is locked on 1995! Perhaps this is because Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder turned marijuana policy over to a DEA Administrator who spent her career in California and Washington with photographs of the two George Bush's on her wall.

Perhaps Obama and his team believe the Attorney General's misrepresentations to the House Judiciary Committee and the public that the Justice Department crusade against medical marijuana is merely designed to help states enforce conformity to their laws. If so, they appear to be sitting in a 1995 medical marijuana time capsule. On this issue, sadly out of touch and deaf to their savvy colleagues like Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emanuel, the Obama team's self-delusion points to a Mitt Romney inauguration next January.

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