Attention Shifts to Cannabis as Midterm Elections Approach

Written by BlackbirdGo September 7, 2018
The History

The issue of cannabis legalization is poised to play an oversized role in this November’s midterm elections. In cities, counties and states across the country, political candidates are preparing to share the ballot with popular cannabis initiatives, and political insiders are beginning to make predictions about how this will affect the vote.

Poll numbers have swung dramatically in favor of cannabis reform over the past two to three decades. The percentage of Americans who support legalization is nearly twice what it was in 2000, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year. And in last October, for the first time ever, a majority of American Republicans - fifty-one percent - responded in support of cannabis legalization, in a poll conducted by Gallup.

The shift in ideological landscape is evidenced by the behavior of American politicians as they try to determine how they’ll best use cannabis to their advantage on election day. Progressive incumbents are embracing the issue, in order to shore up support among their liberal constituents, and in districts where conservative incumbents have been resistant to change, challengers are exploiting an issue they know will be well-received by voters. Meanwhile, longtime opponents of cannabis are switching sides, and offering a variety of explanations for their apparent change of heart.

Stephani Scruggs Bowen is a Florida resident, and the wife of Michael Bowen, who uses medical cannabis to treat his epilepsy and was one of the plaintiffs who sued to overturn a state ban on smokable cannabis. “Any politician who thinks they can alienate over two-thirds of the voting public and win is kidding themselves,” Stephanie told Politico earlier this year. “Rick Scott has been a great governor, but if he wants to beat Bill Nelson, he needs to obey the Constitution … and stop trying to get in between a doctor and his or her patients.”

Once known for their strong opposition to cannabis, Bowen is among a growing number of discordant Republicans who are seeing things differently these days. In 2016, Bowen even served as Trump’s Florida director of field operations.

Many Democratic politicians have remained harshly critical of the ‘War on Drugs’ throughout their careers, but some party stalwarts have had to pivot as abruptly and awkwardly as their Republican counterparts. This bandwagon phenomenon is nothing new, says John Morgan, a trial attorney, activist, and fierce advocate for marijuana reform in Florida. “Obama was not for same-sex marriage, Hillary Clinton wasn’t for same-sex marriage,” he reminds us.

Morgan has been spearheading the campaign to legalize cannabis in his state, and he welcomes all converts. “[Y]ou’re like, ‘When did that happen?’ And that’s what’s going to happen here with marijuana. Claire McCaskill [D-MO] will put her toe in the water, and then later you’ll hear, ‘Well, I was always for it!’ And we will be like, ‘Well, no you weren’t, but we’re glad you are now.’”

Politicians have always seized upon the popularity, or unpopularity, of hot-button social issues, and gay marriage in 2004 serves as a memorable example. By turning that election into a anti-referendum on gay rights, many Democrats alleged at the time, Republicans were able to boost turnout and swing a number of significant political races in their favor.

The initiatives passed overwhelmingly everywhere they appeared on the ballot that year. George W. Bush - a vocal opponent of gay marriage - was re-elected as President, and four new Republicans were elected to the U.S. Senate. Ultimately, eleven states added gay-marriage bans to their state constitutions, including, critically, the state of Ohio, which narrowly delivered the victory to Bush.

To conclude with certainty that gay marriage tipped the scales would be speculative, but within the delicate and combustible world of political strategy, partisan operatives certainly took note.

In fact, this year in Michigan, Republicans in the state senate attempted to legalize cannabis themselves to avoid what was expected to be a popular ballot initiative in the state’s general election in November. Republicans in Lansing had cause for concern: The margin of victory in Michigan over the last election cycle was very narrow - Donald Trump won Michigan by just 10,704 votes. So, in a bizarre sequence of events, GOP lawmakers tried and failed to enact their own, much more stringent version of cannabis regulations ahead of the ballot. The final decision will now be kicked back to Michigan voters this fall.

There is evidence suggesting that that swing states may be even more susceptible to a “cannabis effect” in November. For a new poll, the firm Lake Research Partners surveyed 800 likely 2018 general election voters in 60 so-called “battleground districts,” and found that 60 percent support ending cannabis prohibition. Only 36 percent were opposed.

Cannabis legalization is smart public policy for a number of reasons, and voters will hear them all this year. Early evidence suggests correlations between legalized cannabis and reduced opioid use, reduced numbers of overdose deaths, fewer arrests, reduced prison sentences, and potentially massive tax windfalls, just to name a few.

On the political right, however, arguments in favor of legal weed have focused less on social justice and more on subjects like federal overreach and patients’ rights. Former House speaker John Boehner (R-OH) recently joined the board of advisers at Acreage Holdings, an organization which cultivates and dispenses cannabis. Boehner had previously been “unalterably opposed” to decriminalizing cannabis, but changed tunes after leaving office.

“[M]y thinking on cannabis has evolved,” said Boehner.

At the National Review, a leading voice for traditional conservatism, they’ve called cannabis law a states’ rights issue. To libertarians like Rand Paul of Kentucky, cannabis law is matter of individual liberty. To tax crusader Grover Norquist at Americans for Tax Reform, it’s a matter of national security and fiscal prudence.

These are all highly intelligent people. Their “evolution” is clumsy and sad to watch - the issue was settled for most of us by early adolescence. Decriminalization, at the very least, is a no-brainer no matter who you are or which state you’re living in. The claim by politicians of either party that years of data and self-reflection were necessary in order to arrive at this point is laughable. On the other hand, this is how direct democracy was originally conceived and advertised, so...better late than never.