The Cannabis Column
How the 2016 Presidential Election Could Result in Marijuana’s Legalization

 There’s been a lot of good news in the area of marijuana reform lately, but change is a long-term proposition. A good chess player generally has the next three moves planned. It’s always good strategy to know where you’re going and just how you plan to get there.
So while the nation begins to get caught up in this year’s struggle to win the Presidential election, and various interest groups engage in the process to advance their own goals, it’s an opportune time for advocates of marijuana legalization to think ahead to the next Presidential election.

Marijuana law reform is going to be a relevant issue in the 2012 election, though a minor one in the grand scheme of things. Marijuana legalization measures on the ballot in Colorado and Washington could play a significant factor in voter turnout in both states; whether supporters vote Obama, Romney, or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson could determine how the electoral votes in those states are cast (significant support for Johnson could cost Obama victory in either or both states). Also, supporters of medical marijuana reform are angry at the President and his administration over Obama’s failure to stick to a 2008 campaign promise to respect state medical marijuana laws. How this affects his support in medical cannabis states is another issue of interest.

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These 2012 issues will have an impact on how candidates prepare for the 2016 Presidential race.

More important, though, is how the current wave of marijuana reform at the state level will affect the political importance of marijuana nationally over the next four years.

Connecticut has passed medical marijuana legislation. Rhode Island has passed a marijuana decriminalization law. Medical marijuana legislation will be on the ballot in Massachusetts this November, and as mentioned above, legalization measures will be on the ballot in Colorado and Washington.

A recent Associated Press story, that appeared on Politico and in numerous local newspapers in early June, 2012, sums it up: Marijuana Legislation Gains Momentum in the United States. Focusing on Rhode Island’s reform efforts, the article notes “seventeen states and the District of Columbia now authorize medical marijuana and 14, including neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, have rolled back criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of pot.”

Marijuana reform is now deeply rooted in the Northeast and Western United States, and has also gained a foothold in the Midwest (with decriminalization in Ohio and medical marijuana in Michigan) and the South (with longstanding decriminalization laws in North Carolina and Mississippi.)

Many forces are at work here, and at the local level some of these forces are creating more and more support for reform from politicians in both political parties.

Prominent Democrats in California have become avid supporters of their state’s medical marijuana laws. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, has been a vocal critic of the Obama crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries.

New York decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in the 1970s. However public display of marijuana remained a misdemeanor offense. New York City police have been compelling individuals to empty their pockets and arresting them for displaying marijuana, resulting in tens to thousands of marijuana arrests annually, usually of African-Americans and Hispanics.

Thanks to the work of Harry Levine of The City University of New York – Queens College, the public has learned of this blatant disregard for the state’s decriminalization policy, and Governor Cuomo has proposed new legislation to end this practice. Cuomo’s proposal, though, has been criticized by Republican legislators, transforming this into a political issue with Democrats on the side of reform in one of the nation’s largest states.

Support for marijuana reform is not just a growing force in the Democratic Party. There are some major battles underway within the Republican Party. The effort by conservatives to exert influence over Mitt Romney’s campaign, its positions, and its choice of a Vice Presidential candidate are receiving most of the attention these days. But another important clash is shaping up between the supporters of Ron Paul and those of Rick Santorum over composition of the party’s platform proceedings at their forthcoming convention.

This is merely the next flash point in a longer battle for influence in the Republican Party between Conservatives, the party elite, and the supporters of Ron Paul – a long-time and prominent advocate of marijuana’s legalization.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties are devoting a lot of thought, energy, and money to attracting younger voters and their support. There is also a generational change underway in both parties, with new politicians eager to seize roles in their party’s national efforts. New faces do not always bring with them new policies. However both parties recognize the changing nature of the political landscape.

If Obama wins the 2012 election, he will not be running for re-election in 2016. The Democratic candidate will need to distinguish herself, or himself, from the policies of the (then) last eight years, and that will include appealing to the still-growing numbers of supporters of marijuana law reform. If Obama loses the 2012 election, this challenge will be ever-more important.

If Romney wins the 2012 election, he will need to consolidate and build on his winning margin in 2012 by attracting new and younger voters in 2016. Now, for example, Romney polls the best with older voters. He will need to expand his support in 2016, and appealing to the Ron Paul wing of his party will be one available option to accomplish that objective. If Romney loses the 2012 election, it is likely that the Republican Conservatives will fight harder and perhaps more successfully for control of their party and hasten the emergence of their younger leaders. This may further polarize the marijuana issue, giving it an even more prominent role in building support for Democrats. On the other hand, due to the Paul wing of the party Republicans may view state-level marijuana reform as an opportunity to build support with younger voters for their advocacy of federalism in other areas of national policy.

Irrespective of the outcome of the 2012 election, marijuana law reform at the state level will continue. Over the last generation no state has reversed marijuana reform policies, and this trend will likely continue. By the time the 2016 election season arrives, marijuana law reform will be firmly entrenched as a major, formidable, and unavoidable political issue. As such, it will provide major opportunities for national candidates in both political parties. In other words, for the first time in history, national candidates will not be able to avoid taking a stand on marijuana’s legalization, and their positions will have significant consequences on their political future.

Supporters of marijuana law reform should keep this in mind over the coming years. The time for legalization may not be now, but it is coming, and coming soon. Advocates of legalization need to devote time to preparing and publicizing policy options for national legalization. The long-term impact of state-level reform on national political races needs to be discussed, especially after the November, 2012 elections.
Marijuana advocates need to continue and expedite efforts to build bridges to both the Republican and Democratic Parties, increasing their focus on the benefits of marijuana law reform in terms of policies and the opportunities it presents in terms of politics.

Finally, to make this horizon a reality, marijuana users need to ramp up efforts to increase their levels of voter registration and voting participation. The more marijuana reform supporters who register and vote, the greater attention marijuana legalization will receive. Visit VoteSmart.org and learn how to register to vote in your state. If 18 or over, and you’re not a registered voter, do it now.

Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES.  A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues.  On October 8, 2002,  along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law.  This column will track that petition’s progress.

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