Could the next president reverse marijuana momentum?
States with recreational marijuana laws:
Colorado – passed in Nov. 2012
Washington – passed in Nov. 2012
Alaska – passed in Nov. 2014
Oregon – passed in Nov. 2014
District of Columbia – passed in Feb. 2015
States with medicinal marijuana laws:
Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, D.C., Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Marijuana legalization may not be one of the top issues being discussed among Republican and Democratic presidential candidates for the 2016 election, but the fact it’s being discussed at all is unprecedented.
Despite poll numbers showing a majority of Americans support decriminalizing cannabis, some candidates have come out strongly against it. New Jersey Governor and GOP presidential hopeful Chris Christie, in particular, has expressed publicly that he would “crack down” on states that have legalized marijuana.
Could a prohibitionist president reverse the progress marijuana advocates have championed in Colorado and other states?
Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the scenario is unlikely. Founded in 1995, MPP is the largest organization focused exclusively on ending marijuana prohibition. The group has been involved with changing state laws surrounding cannabis since 2000.
“A new president could attempt to interfere in states that have bucked federal prohibition laws, but there is only so much they can do,” he said. “National polls are consistently finding a majority of Americans believe marijuana should be legal for adults, and more than 60 percent believe the federal government should refrain from interfering in state marijuana laws.”
POT, POLLS AND PRESIDENTS
A Gallup poll last year found 51 percent of Americans support legalization of marijuana. The poll, conducted from October 12-15, 2014, also revealed approval varied based on age and political affiliation. While 64 percent of Democrats want to see cannabis taxed and regulated, that figure drops to 39 percent among Republicans. In fact, the survey found less than one-third of conservative voters are on board to decriminalize cannabis.
Gallup data also reveals a generational division. The 2014 survey noted that 64 percent of 18-35 year olds support legal cannabis, while only 41 percent of those 55 or older were in favor. Marijuana advocates like Brian Vicente see the numbers as evidence the legalization movement is gaining momentum.
“This will be a nationally-legal industry within five years,” he said.
Vicente, who along with Tvert, wrote Amendment 64 and directed a signature drive to introduce a ballot initiative, said a step backwards is definitely a scary possibility. He noted that after the 2016 election, five more states could see marijuana be legalized.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said his group wants to support an anti-prohibitionist candidate.
“California, Nevada, Arizona, Missouri, Michigan and Maine are slated for legalization initiatives,” he said. “Polls and surveys in all of those states show a majority of residents want legal marijuana.”
Gallup data also reveals how public support has grown slowly, from 12 percent in 1969 to 28 percent in the late 1970s. In 2003, only 34 percent of respondents were in favor of legalization of marijuana. By 2011 Gallup reported that support had reached 50 percent.
The majority of Colorado voters have supported legal cannabis, but would state officials cower if the federal government decided to aggressively enforce cannabis prohibition in states that have opted to regulate and tax the substance?
Skyler McKinley, deputy director for the governor’s office of marijuana coordination, said the existing conflict between federal and state law could become an issue depending on the next president elect. “As state officials we’re going to follow the state constitution.”
In 2012, Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, which changed the state constitution to allow adults to legally consume cannabis. Tvert said this helps undercut any federal efforts to reverse progress.
“Yes, it makes the state’s case against federal interference even stronger,” he said. “It’d be more difficult for state officials to repeal the law. “
The 2016 Republican field has presented voters with a variety of perspectives on the issue, ranging from Rand Paul’s libertarian support of states’ rights to Christie telling he would shut down marijuana production in states that have opted to legalize.
“There are fissures within the Republican party,” St. Pierre said
This range of opinions gives Republican voters more options, he said, while Democrats have narrower choices. He explained that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders believe in medical marijuana and have also espoused support for states’ rights on the issue of cannabis. St. Pierre noted that, traditionally, states’ rights has been a Republican talking point.
“We need incentives for both parties to come to the table,” he opined.
There have been bi-partisan efforts to reach a national consensus. California Republican Dana Rohrabacher has introduced House Bill 1940, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2015. The legislation would amend the Controlled Substances Act to say that provisions related to marijuana would not apply to persons acting in compliance with state laws. The bill was referred to subcommittee in May.
NO STOPING IT?
Many pro-marijuana groups see legalization progress continuing regardless of the shifting political tides.
“2016 is the (ultimate) year for legalization of marijuana in the U.S.,” St. Pierre said.
The feds cannot force states to make marijuana illegal under state law, Tvert pointed out. He also said the feds have clearly indicated they do not have the resources to police low-level marijuana offenses.
“The federal government could try to shut down the systems states have created to regulate the production and sale of marijuana,” he said. “But marijuana would remain legal under state laws, and the federal government cannot stop that.”
In August 2013, the Department of Justice issued a memo, which said it was an inefficient use of limited federal resources to prosecute lawful medical marijuana providers.
Although a new president could decide to treat the issue differently, McKinley said Colorado would continue on the same path.
“As state officials, we’re going to follow the state constitution,” he said. “At the end of the day, we want to carry out the will of the people of Colorado.”
The gains made by the legalization movement in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon will likely not be reversed no matter who is elected president in 2016, according to Tvert.
“Rolling back the progress that has been made with marijuana policy reform would be just as difficult as rolling back the progress made on LGBT rights,” he said. “A hostile new administration could potentially slow progress down, but it cannot stop it. The country is clearly heading in one direction on this issue — forward.”
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