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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Are the Politics of Medical Marijuana Shifting?

For a while now, the legalization of the use of marijuana for medical purposes has seemed to be an issue position that people generally support (whether in opinion polls -- 77 percent of respondents in this CBS poll -- or at the actual polls in 16 states) but that politicians generally do not.  Indeed, most politicians seem to be quite dismissive of the issue when it is brought up.  I have assumed that this is largely because of electoral incentives.  Although most people support the legalization of medical marijuana, it's pretty low on the list of issues they care about.  And they certainly wouldn't vote against someone with whom they otherwise agree because of that candidate opposes the legalization of medical marijuana.  So long as that is true, politicians don't have much incentive to support medical marijuana, despite the overwhelming majority of public support.  (All the more so if the opponents of medical marijuana, as is plausible, will vote against candidates who disagree with them on the issue.)  I think these sorts of electoral dynamics explain why the Obama Administration's Justice Department, after initially suggesting that it would exercise its enforcement discretion not to pursue "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana," has in the last year or so retreated to a more hard-line enforcement stance.

But two events in recent weeks have me wondering whether we're seeing a shift in the politics of this issue.  One is the vote in the House a couple of weeks ago on an appropriations rider that would have barred the Department of Justice from using funds "to prevent such States [that have legalized the medical use of marijuana] from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."  The rider failed by a 163-262 vote, but what is interesting to me is that 29 Republicans, along with 134 Democrats, supported it.  Now perhaps, as a libertarian friend suggested to me, some or all of the Republicans were just voting that way to attack President Obama.  But 134 Democrats is a clear majority of the House Democratic Caucus, and their votes suggest that, for a lot of Democrats at least, support for the majority position on medical marijuana can override the fear of being tagged as soft on crime.

The other event is the Democratic primary for Attorney General in Oregon.  Former Acting US Attorney Dwight Holton (who is, by the way, a really outstanding public servant, an absolutely terrific guy, and exactly the kind of person we should all want to see in government) lost by a surprisingly wide margin (64-36 percent) to retired state judge Ellen Rosenblum (whom I don't know personally, but who I'm sure is great, too!).  Holton had strong polls and a fundraising advantage, and he had the endorsements of a broad swath of the state's law enforcement community, making his overwhelming loss particularly shocking.  Many observers attribute his loss to his stance on Oregon's medical marijuana law.  He had called that law a "trainwreck" and, as Acting US Attorney, he had led efforts to crack down on medical marijuana collectives.  In the last days of the campaign, according to the Oregonian, advocates of medical marijuana contributed $200,000 to Rosenblum.  And, according to the AP, a local organization seeking to legalize marijuana "spent another $40,000 to boost Rosenblum, much of it on radio ads attacking Holton over marijuana."

The Democratic primary electorate in Oregon no doubt skews in a more hippie-ish direction than the Democratic primary electorates -- much less the general electorates -- in other states.  But I do wonder whether the electoral politics around this issue are changing such that more politicians will feel an incentive to pursue the position with which most people express agreement.

Posted by Sam Bagenstos on May 23, 2012 at 08:48 AM | Permalink


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Federal government shouldn't interfere with states that have legalized medical marijuana. Obama's Justice Department is angering marijuana activists by shutting down dispensaries in California and Colorado.

Posted by: medical cannabis | Sep 10, 2012 5:39:41 AM

"Seventy-three percent of Democrats supported the amendment, but only 29 House Republicans."

This won't change until it truly becomes a bipartisan movement. If the Republicans split on the issue -- and bravo to the few who did vote for it -- in real numbers, there is a chance. Until then, the old policy will be the norm and Obama isn't going to change. He is a centrist and is not going to try to overhaul the establishment here. On quite a few issues, this was made clear, even the health law passed a moderate one that used a Republican idea and free market approach.

Push push push!

Posted by: Joe | May 23, 2012 8:54:58 AM

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