What’s The Problem with Elected Officials and Marijuana?
Every state that has fully legalized marijuana to date has accomplished that change by voter initiative, which means a majority of the voting public in those states clearly favored ending marijuana prohibition. However most statewide elected officials in those states publicly opposed legalization prior to the vote; and even after the initiatives passed, many attempt to undermine the new laws.
These out-of-step public officials must be dismayed that their opposition to legalization appears to have had little impact on the voters, who no longer trust their elected officials to determine marijuana policy.
Which raises the question of why so many of our elected officials remain so dismissive of the public health and other advantages of a regulated marijuana market over a black market. When presented with a choice, they frequently exaggerate the potential dangers from marijuana and embrace the status quo, ignoring the massive costs of prohibition.
Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, first elected governor in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, who made his fortune as founder of the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver, was a leading opponent of Amendment 64 in 2012 when it was approved by 55% of the voters.
Still today, when asked whether pot legalization has been a good thing, or a bad thing, for Colorado, the governor can’t quite decide. The new law has created tens of thousands of new jobs in the state, is currently bringing in well over $120 million in taxes to the state treasury each year, and has reduced marijuana arrests in Colorado by 80%, but the governor continues to contradict himself from one day to the next – depending on what audience he is addressing.
During his re-election campaign in 2014 Hickenlooper called the legalization of marijuana in Colorado “reckless,” although he had no problem soliciting campaign donations from the marijuana industry behind closed doors.
And in 2015, he told CNBC “If I could’ve waved a wand the day after the election (in 2012), I would’ve reversed the election and said, ‘This was a bad idea.’ You don’t want to be the first person to do something like this,” he said, advising other governors to “wait a couple of years” before moving forward with legalization.
This man, who became rich selling alcohol, just can’t seem to get comfortable with legal marijuana, despite the obvious benefits to his state, and the popularity of legalization with Colorado voters.
And in the states expected to have full legalization on the ballot this November, the most prominent state elected officials continue to bury their heads in the sand.
The most organized opposition to a pending legalization initiative this year can be found in Massachusetts. A bipartisan coalition of public officials, calling themselves “A Campaign for A Safe and Healthy Massachusetts,” has announced their commitment to maintaining marijuana prohibition in MA. The anti-marijuana coalition includes Republican Governor Charles Baker, along with State Attorney General Maura Healey, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, all Democrats. It is truly a “who’s who” of Massachusetts state politics.
The basis for their opposition, they say, is that legalization poses a public health and safety threat, especially to young people.
Governor Baker explained his opposition to the legalization initiative in a statement warning against “legalizing a recreational marketplace for a drug that would put our children at risk and threaten to reverse our progress combating the growing opioid epidemic so this industry can rake in millions in profits.”
And Mayor Walsh recently explained his opposition. “I’ve met far too many families in Boston and elsewhere where kids have lost their way in school and been shut out of success in the workplace due to addiction and abuse of marijuana. Where marijuana is legal, young people are more likely to use it and a vote against legalizing the commercial marijuana industry is a vote to protect our kids and communities.”
Of course, no one is suggesting that kids should be using marijuana, and American teens themselves tell us each year in federal surveys that under prohibition, marijuana is easier for them to obtain than alcohol, because of the age requirement for alcohol. A regulated marijuana market would provide a significant deterrence against the use of marijuana by minors whereas no one ever asks for an ID in the black market.
Despite this high-profile establishment opposition in MA, legalization advocates continue to anticipate a victory in November, expecting the voters to have grown disillusioned by these tired scare tactics.
In Arizona, Republican Governor Doug Ducey has been a vocal public opponent of the legalization initiative in his state, saying he believes the majority of problems the state faces can be linked back to drugs “from unemployment, to homelessness, to domestic violence, to child neglect, to our prison population”.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has been silent regarding his position on the pending legalization initiative, although back in 2014 he expressed his opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana, observing “if there’s advertising and legitimacy, how many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation.”
I should note that current Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who convened a Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy to study policy options, has endorsed the pending legalization initiative in CA (AUMA), and supported efforts to qualify the measure for the ballot. He is somewhat unique among statewide elected officials, and his public support has provided a needed boost to the legalization effort in that state.
In Maine, Republican Governor Paul LePage has long opposed efforts to legalize marijuana, despite polling showing majority public support, calling it a “gateway drug.” The governor actually called for the state to “bring back the guillotine” to publicly behead drug traffickers!
In Nevada, Republican Governor Brian Sandoval has indicated he too opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana, but he does not appear to have made a big deal about his opposition. Nevada is a state that has long understood the benefits of regulating gambling, but the principle apparently does not extend to marijuana.
Victims of Their Own Propaganda
To some degree, what we see in all of these states reflects the cautious instincts of most elected officials. Their top priority is getting re-elected, and they see change, especially involving contentious social issues, as politically risky behavior. That underlying reality explains why not a single state legislature has yet approved full legalization.
But with current polling clearly showing a majority of the country now supporting legalization, fear of a political backlash should be abating. Perhaps this refusal by most elected officials to acknowledge the obvious benefits to legalization is based on an unwillingness to finally admit what the rest of us have known all along – their passionately-held anti-marijuana views were based on ignorance, prejudice and misinformation.
To some degree, they are the victims of their own propaganda. And they can’t let go of those dated views without acknowledging their complicity in the misguided and destructive war on marijuana smokers. The policy they support has resulted in the senseless arrest and prosecution of tens of millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans, simply because they smoke pot. And our elected officials do not wish to accept that responsibility.
Instead of moving forward with a fresh approach, these public officials prefer to assume the voters have been fooled, or they are stupid, or otherwise incapable of making these decisions for themselves.
That screeching we are hearing from the establishment politicians in these states is the sound of a dying breed, squarely on the wrong side of history. Where do they get these clowns?
Fortunately for the reform community, voters are way ahead of their elected representatives on our issue. And the time is coming for our elected officials to catch-up or be held accountable and replaced at the ballot box by these same voters.
This column first appeared on Marijuana.com. May 16, 2016