The strange political bedfellows of the pot debate

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. The politics of pot makes those alliances even more peculiar.

Case in point? Sens. Rand Paul (R-Kent.) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have the exact same position on this aspect of marijuana enforcement: that people caught with small amounts of it should not be prosecuted.

 

The politics of weed have dramatically shifted in the past few years, led by a major change in how the American public views the dangers of marijuana and the penalties that should be associated with possessing and using it. Official policy is also changing; the U.S. drug war is shifting away from prosecuting low-level users and instead focusing on getting them into treatment.

"The proximate cause is simply the huge swing in public opinion," said Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA. "It's no longer a fringe position."

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, support for the legalization of marijuana is growing.

Americans also think the government should focus more on treatment than prosecuting and incarcerating drug users.

Marijuana is different from other hot-button social issues in that support for legalization or decriminalization cuts across party lines. According to a Pew survey from last year, support for legalizing marijuana grew among members of all political stripes from 2010 to 2013. The biggest change? Moderate to liberal Republicans. 

Part of what is driving Americans and politicians to think differently about marijuana policy is a shift in how many believe that minor drug offenses should be handled. According to the Pew survey released in April, a majority of Republicans, Independents and Democrats believe that someone arrested for possessing a minor amount of marijuana should not face jail time.

And according to a Washington Times straw poll taken at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, 41 percent of respondents said marijuana should be legalized and taxed. (Worth noting: The CPAC crowd trends younger and more libertarian than the broader GOP base.)

Before we delve any further into the politics of the issue, there is a very large distinction to be made between decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana and the role that medical marijuana plays.

Marijuana has been decriminalized in 17 states and the District of Columbia, according to NORML, a marijuana advocacy group. Decriminalizing marijuana essentially means that if a person is caught with a small amount of marijuana (in most places it's an ounce or less) authorities will treat it like a traffic infraction. Despite this, marijuana remains an illegal substance. Marijuana has been legalized in two states, Colorado and Washington. Colorado started allowing the sale of recreational marijuana to anyone over age 21 on Jan. 1. The state said $14.02 million worth of pot was sold in January, bringing in $2.01 million in taxes. The sale of recreational marijuana in Washington is expected to begin later this year. Attorney General Eric Holder told the Huffington Post last week that he is "cautiously optimistic" on how the programs are going. Holder said the Department of Justice is not going "not going to be involved in the prosecution of small-time, possessory drug cases." Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical reasons only. With the exception of Colorado and Washington, recreational use remains illegal in those states and D.C.


A woman blows smoke rings with marijuana smoke during the 4/20 Rally at the Civic Center in Denver, Colorado, April 20, 2014.  REUTERS/Mark Leffingwell

Ok, now back to the politics. The decriminalization and medical use of marijuana is no longer confined to states that are thought to be Democratic strongholds. Arizona and Nevada have legalized medical marijuana, and Mississippi and Nebraska have decriminalized it.

Despite that, many governors are loath to support full legalization. Instead, the push by both Democrats and Republicans tends to swing more toward decriminalizing marijuana or making it legal only for medical purposes. And that's where the strange alliances come up. "It's interesting that it comes full circle, but part of the reason is that marijuana prohibition affects so many other areas of public policy and other issues," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Sen. Rand Paul


Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks during the inaugural Freedom Summit meeting for conservative speakers in Manchester, New Hampshire April 12, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

The Republican from Kentucky does not go as far as his father, who was for legalization. Paul is in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. He said young people often dabble in the drug, and some are arrested and put in prison. "I don't want to put them in jail and ruin their lives," Paul said. Paul has advocated for prison reform, and said he believes that low-level drug offenses have a disproportionate effect on young minority men. Paul told the Las Vegas Sun he believes each state should decide whether or not to legalize marijuana. But as for the drug itself? "I personally think that marijuana use is not healthy," he said. "People that use it chronically have a loss of IQ and a loss of ambition, but at the same time states have the right to make these decisions."

Rick Perry


Texas Governor Rick Perry in Fort Worth, Texas. REUTERS/Mike Stone

Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, urged a move toward decriminalization at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. "What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade," Perry said. Perry told Jimmy Kimmel that he had never used marijuana. But he wondered about exposure to some of the smoke coming from people at South by Southwest, particularly that of rapper Snoop Dogg. "But does secondhand count?" Perry asked. "Because I think there's still some left in there where Snoop was."

Tom Tancredo 


(Photo by Andrea Melendez-Pool/Getty Images)

Former Colorado Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo surprised many when he announced his support for the amendment that legalized marijuana use in the state. Tancredo compared criminalizing marijuana to the prohibition of alcohol, saying it simply drove things underground. Tancredo also framed the issue as an infringement of big government on the lives of citizens. Keeping marijuana illegal, he said in a radio ad, “allows government to dictate how adults live their lives.” Tancredo told a filmmaker last year that the two would smoke a joint together if marijuana were legalized in Colorado. Tancredo said he has never tried marijuana. No word on whether the deal has been consummated.

Martin O'Malley 


In this Sept. 4, 2012, photo, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

O'Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland, last week endorsed and signed a law that decriminalized marijuana in the state. In a tweet, O'Malley said the law will make it easier "for law enforcement to focus on higher priority crimes & drive down violence in MD." Like so many politicians, O'Malley had a change of heart; he had previously spoken out against marijuana. What changed his view is unclear, but one thing is for certain: it looks good on the liberal resume he is building in anticipation of 2016.

Cory Booker 


MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

In August Booker, now a Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey, called for marijuana to be decriminalized and the U.S. to reform its prison system. The former mayor of Newark said he had seen first-hand how young minority men were disproportionately incarcerated for low-level drug offenses. "We need to have a structured national conversation about decriminalizing marijuana," Booker said. "Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite the fact that their usage rates are no different."

So where do we stand now?

Twelve states currently have bills pending that would legalize medical marijuana. The next referendum on legalizing marijuana for recreational use will be in Alaska, where residents will vote on a ballot initiative to legalize it in November. But it appears the true test of whether or not Americans want to legalize marijuana will happen in 2016.

Pro-legalization advocates are looking at pushing forward the issue in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada in 2016. Some states, including Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont, may make the push before then, but look for 2016 to be the year that legalizes -- or doesn't -- marijuana across the country.

This post has been updated to reflect that an Alaska ballot initiative originally scheduled for August was moved to November this week after lawmakers went into extended session.

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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