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Why legal marijuana is popular, but lawmakers still pass on grass

Marijuana is on fire -- this much we know.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll earlier this week was the latest to show a spike in support for legal weed. CNN, Gallup and the Pew Research Center all now show a clear-to-sizeable majority of Americans support Americans' right to toke as they please -- as high as 58 percent in Gallup's polling.

Despite the surge in popularity, though, we have yet to see basically any major politicians jumping on board. Indeed, it's tough to name any big-name elected officials who support it -- let alone someone who might run for president in 2016.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) this week became the latest lawmakers to just say no, as their state weighs legalizing marijuana.

They have been joined in recent weeks by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R), California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

So ... pot is popular ... and politicians like to be popular (it kind of helps them win elections) ... so why isn't anybody jumping on-board with legalizing recreational marijuana?

Well, a few things are at play here.

1) Marijuana's popularity is very new

Politicians are in the business of sustainability, not embracing the latest fad. So before something becomes part of a politician's platform, he or she wants to make sure it has staying power and isn't just a passing fancy. Pot has jumped double-digits in the last year in some polls, and while all the movement in recent years is in one direction, that kind of quick movement is exceedingly rare and potentially unpredictable.

There's also the matter of whether or not it's going to work. The fact is that Colorado and Washington, whose voters legalized marijuana in the 2012 election, are entering uncharted territory as they implement their new laws.

You can bet that any governor or lawmaker who might, in his or her heart of hearts, support the idea of legal weed is more than happy to see Colorado and Washington take a stab at it before they do. If it fails miserably (you thought we were going to use another play-on-words here, didn't you?), it's not their problem and they'll know that they should steer clear in the future.

2) The payoff is minimal

As with issues like guns and immigration, the support/oppose polls don't necessarily tell the whole story. While a majority supports legalizing marijuana, lawmakers might stand to lose more than they stand to gain by supporting it. That's because issues like this are all about intensity.

While polling on intensity of marijuana support is limited, consider this: Pew's poll last year showed just 12 percent of Americans had used marijuana in the past year, while 32 percent said it was morally wrong to do so. So those who are morally opposed to the use of the drug are nearly three times as plentiful as those who actually use the drug.

Now, that's not to say that nobody who doesn't use marijuana doesn't feel strongly about it. Indeed, an issue like gay marriage shows that plenty of people who aren't directly affected by a potential change in the law can still be pretty passionate about it. But marijuana isn't exactly a huge civil rights issue.

(Update: As some point out, drug sentences that result from marijuana possession convictions are indeed a pretty significant civil rights issue. Fair point. We would argue, though, that legalization isn't the only alternative.)

3) It's not a hot-button issue, period

Above, we suggested that marijuana isn't really a big deal for supporters, but the fact is that it's not really a big deal for opponents right now, either. Colorado's and Washington's moves to legalize marijuana are viewed as slightly less than trivial at this point. (And politicians generally want to be seen as serious and committed to top-of-mind issues.) While the real-world consequences are definitely real, it's not national security, it's not really an economic issue, and it's not -- as we discussed above -- a major civil rights issue.

(We're sure people will disagree with all three of those statements, but the fact is that it's not a huge issue on any of these three fronts.)

In an era in which the United States is still trying to right the economic ship and figure out what to do on issues like immigration, marijuana is still a lower-tier issue. That doesn't mean supporters won't be successful in getting their states to pass ballot measures, but it does mean lawmakers are much more likely to stay focused on more time-sensitive and pressing issues.


Ed Gillespie (R) has told Republicans he will challenge Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) launched his first ad.

Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean (R) said questions remain about the New Jersey bridge scandal.

Priorities USA will have new leadership.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) raised more than $35 million for Democrats last year.

Businessman Mike McFadden (R) raised $780,000 during the last three months of 2013 for his campaign against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) raised about four times as much as his primary opponent, attorney Bryan Smith, during the fourth quarter of 2013.

Dennis Rodman said he was sorry.


"How damaged is Chris Christie?" -- Dan Balz, Washington Post

"Firing of Stepien deprives Christie of a key counselor" -- Matea Gold and Robert Costa, Washington Post



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Sean Sullivan · January 9, 2014

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