Why the marijuana issue is only going to get bigger

April 23

Marijuana legalization may be a bit of a quiet issue in this election year. But before long it’s going to get much bigger, moving into the electoral arena around the country and forcing itself into national debates in a way it hasn’t been before, much as same-sex marriage did over the last few years.

We’re rapidly approaching the day when no politician with any significant ambitions can avoid having a well-considered position on the issue. Would-be public officials are going to be asked about it with increasing frequency, and it won’t be enough to make a Cheech and Chong joke to change the subject.

That isn’t stopping them from trying, however. When Chris Christie got asked about legalization on his radio show, he said:

‘”For the people who are enamored with the idea with the income, the tax revenue from this, go to Colorado and see if you want to live there…see if you want to live in a major city in Colorado where there’s head shops popping up on every corner and people flying into your airport just to come and get high. To me, it’s just not the quality of life we want to have here in the state of New Jersey and there’s no tax revenue that’s worth that.”

Officials from the rancid cauldron of sin and misery that is Colorado were quick to respond. “From the beauty of the rolling hills of the Eastern Plains to the magnificent landscapes in the mountains and from our smallest rural towns to our largest cities, Colorado offers the greatest quality of life in the nation,” said Senator Michael Bennett. “A lot of people think Colorado is great place to live, work and play. Plus, we have a pretty awesome quality of life,” said a spokesperson for Governor John Hickenlooper. Obviously, those guys must be high.

This is something of a preview of the arguments we’ll see as we move toward 2016 and legalization initiatives are on ballots all over the country.

You’ll notice that Christie’s argument was pragmatic, not moralistic. He didn’t say that people who smoke pot are losers and criminals, or that it’s an instrument of evil. Instead he talked about the trade-offs between tax revenue and the vitality of urban shopping districts.

Opponents of legalization realize that moralistic arguments against marijuana are going to be political losers, what with the fact that a majority of Americans now support legalization, plus the fact that most Americans have used it at some point in their lives. But that doesn’t mean Republicans are going to come around to legalization any time soon, a fact Democrats hope will allow them to use ballot initiatives to burst turnout among some of their target constituencies.

To be sure, this fall there may end up being only a couple of marijuana initiatives on the ballot. Florida voters will decide on a constitutional amendment providing for medical marijuana, and a full legalization initiative could make it to the ballot in Alaska. Advocates are also trying to put a measure on the ballot in Oregon.

But if you’re a legalization advocate, you actually shouldn’t want to have an initiative on the ballot this year. In state after state, advocates have decided to wait until 2016, when they know more of Democrats and young people will be going to the polls to vote for president, to put the question to the voters. Advocates in California considered mounting a push this year, then put it off until 2016. That presidential year could also see initiatives in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, and Nevada, and possibly other states as well.

There’s a good reason for this: Polls show huge divides by age and party on the issue. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center show that while only 32 percent of Americans over 65 favor legalization, 70 percent of those 18 to 29 favor it. The divide between parties is only slightly smaller, with 63 percent of Democrats favoring legalization compared to 39 percent of Republicans.

With half a dozen or more states deciding legalization at the polls in 2016, it will be impossible for any politician to ignore. And after years of fruitful hippie-bashing, Republicans will find themselves increasingly on the defensive. And this issue is only going to get bigger and bigger.

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Greg Sargent | April 23