Sea Change?

12.14.13

The New Politics of Pot: The 2014 Candidates Who Want to Legalize It

Forget decriminalization or medical marijuana. Bolstered by state ballot victories, top-tier contenders in 2014 are seeking full legalization, the drug’s highest-profile advocacy ever.

After a round of victories at the ballot box, the spliff is trying its make case at the statehouse—and on the stump.

Advocates for marijuana legalization say the 2014 elections represent the first time that serious, top-tier candidates for major state and federal offices are advocating for full legalization of the drug. In Pennsylvania and Maryland, top contenders for the Democratic nomination for governor are calling for legalization, as is the likely Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Maine. And earlier this week, a legalization bill was introduced in the Legislature in New York, making the state the sixth with an active bill under consideration. Legalization bills failed in six other states in 2013.

“It shows there has been a big shift in mainstream politics. You are a seeing a lot of movement in the Democratic Party especially,” said Erik Altieri, the communications director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws and the manager of NORML PAC, which donated to three candidates last year and has already endorsed John Hanger, the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania who has made legalization a key part of his platform. “For Democrats in primaries, it has become an issue that sets you apart and gets you votes because there is overwhelming support for legalization. Soon enough politicians are going to be stumbling over themselves not only to support this but to say who supports it more.”

“You know the Wayne Gretzky line, ‘I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where it will be.’ Well, most politicians want to skate where the puck already was.”

To be clear, these pols don’t just support medical marijuana, which is legal in 20 states plus Washington, D.C., and which polls show more than 80 percent of Americans support. Nor do they advocate only for the decriminalization of marijuana, which would change the law so that possessing a small amount of marijuana merits a fine and a ticket instead of jail and a felony conviction. Instead these candidates are calling for full legalization, introducing a tax and regulatory regime that they say would make the drug safer and bolster state budgets.

The pro-pot candidates of 2014 have been bolstered by state ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado that legalized marijuana starting next year and by a Gallup poll in October that showed 58 percent of Americans support legalization. It was a 46 percent increase since 1969, when the polling company first started asking the question, and the first time a majority has backed legalization.

But if legalization is as popular as advocates insist it is, how come more candidates aren’t backing it?

“Politicians, and I know a lot of them, tend not to seek out controversy,” said Daylin Leach, a state senator in Pennsylvania who is running for an open congressional seat in suburban Philadelphia and who has made legalization a central plank of his campaign. “You know the Wayne Gretzky line, ‘I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where it will be.’ Well, most politicians want to skate where the puck already was.”

Leach introduced a bill in the Pennsylvania Senate this year that would have legalized marijuana. Passage remains unlikely, but if there were a secret ballot, he said, “it would pass overwhelmingly.” A conservative lawmaker who was publicly opposed to the bill, Leach said, told him privately, “I hope it passes so I can stop smoking pot in my living room and start on my front porch.”

The state senator is in a crowded field, but if he wins, he will join a small cadre of members of Congress who are backing full legalization. A bill introduced this year to decriminalize marijuana and turn regulatory power over to the states has 10 Democratic co-sponsors, and Republican Steve Stockman, who announced Monday that he was running for the Texas Senate seat now held by Republican John Cornyn, supports a bill mandating that the federal government respect state marijuana laws.

“We shouldn’t put people in the criminal justice system for smoking a plant which makes them feel giddy,” Leach said. “We are now requiring everyone, including our kids, to buy pot from behind the local bowling alley from someone they have never met before, instead of going into a state store in a strip mall, as you would to buy a bottle of vodka.”

The 2014 candidates’ pro-pot stance appears mostly to be a way for them to distinguish themselves in primaries where the candidates largely share the same views, particularly on social issues. In Maryland, for example, the candidate pushing legalization, Heather Mizeur, also is vying to be first openly gay governor of the state and is running a campaign designed to appeal to liberals and young people. Mizeur rejects “old paradigm assumptions about conventional wisdom and what is and isn’t safe to do in politics,” she said. “I am a candidate who never plays it safe. I always stand up for what I believe in. In the past, politics has been about catching up to where people are.”

In Pennsylvania, former governor Ed Rendell told The Daily Beast that he thought Hanger’s position on marijuana was what distinguished him most among voters with the Democratic primary five months away.

Hanger said he agreed.

“This issue alone could win me the Democratic primary,” he said. His plan would expunge the record of those who have been convicted of marijuana possession. “I would like Democrats to reclaim the word liberty or at least not surrender it completely. I put this issue in the same category as marriage equality for gays and lesbians or reproductive choice for women. To me, this is a question of individual autonomy, and it is rooted in some fairly traditional values of letting people live their lives how they want to unless they are hurting others.”

Marijuana activists say legalization bills that are passed through the normal order of a legislature and signed by a governor, as opposed to becoming law through a referendum, have their advantages. Although referenda may be a truer reflection of the voters’ will, they are often poorly written and require lawmakers to sort out the details, as is happening now in Colorado and Washington.

“You often end up with a half-baked measure—to use a terrible pun—if you put it through the ballot process,” said Altieri, though he sounded confident that measures would pass in Alaska, California, and Oregon next year.