Supporting marijuana legalization and winning elections

Jill Harris is managing director of strategic initiatives for Drug Policy Action, the political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Two candidates ran for Congress in El Paso, a city that shares a border with Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. El Paso’s Mexican counterpart is the murder capital of the world: More than 10,000 people have died there since Mexican President Felipe Calderon militarized the drug war in 2006.

One candidate, a former city councilman and first-time congressional candidate, supports marijuana legalization and health-centered alternatives to the war on drugs. The other, a respected eight-term incumbent endorsed by Presidents Obama and Bill Clinton, opposes legalizing marijuana and is against any serious solution to the drug war. The incumbent ran ads against the newcomer decrying his support of marijuana legalization and promising to keep drugs out of the hands of El Paso’s children. The newcomer, labeled “pro-pot,” “soft on crime” and lacking the “character” for the office, was likely to go down in flames.

Except it didn’t work out like that. On Tuesday, challenger Beto O’Rourke defeated incumbent Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic Party primary, garnering more than 50 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race to avoid a runoff. O’Rourke is all but certain to be the next U.S. representative from the safely Democratic 16th District.

O’Rourke joins Oregon’s Ellen Rosenblum, who last month upset the establishment favorite for state attorney general in a Democratic primary that hinged on drug policy reform and was widely viewed as a referendum on medical marijuana. A former state appeals court judge, Rosenblum does not have a Republican opponent in the general election. Rosenblum strongly supported legal access by patients to medical marijuana, while her opponent Dwight Holton, a former federal prosecutor who had conducted raids on medical marijuana providers, sharply criticized Oregon’s law, referring to it as a “train wreck.” Holton also tried to use Rosenblum’s stand against her, accusing her of trying to buy the attorney general’s office with money from drug legalizers.

In the fall of 2010, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who opposed California’s medical marijuana law and vowed to shut down dispensaries, was defeated by a razor-thin margin in a race for state attorney general by Kamala Harris, who supports legalized marijuana for patients. Many observers speculated that voters’ overwhelming support for medical marijuana may have been the deciding factor.

These three races represent a sea change in American politics. Explicit opposition to failed drug war policies does not mean certain defeat and under certain circumstances may actually be a boon. A new Rasmussen poll showed that 56 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana and only 36 percent oppose it. A Mason–Dixon poll conducted in May found that 74 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of Independents and 67 percent of Republicans believe that the federal government should respect state medical marijuana laws and not prosecute individuals who are in compliance with these laws.

Politicians typically lag behind the voters on social issues, at least publicly. Many elected officials will say in private that they personally support marijuana legalization but fear political repercussions if they “come out” about their support for reform. That dynamic may be shifting. In blue Oregon and California and red Texas, candidates have just succeeded with a pro-reform message. As the momentum builds for marijuana legalization across the country, politicians will have no choice but to get in step with the public. And then we’ll really start to see things change.

 
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