Pubdate: Wed, 27 Mar 2013
Source: Atlantic Monthly, The (US)
Copyright: 2013 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
Author: Matt Taylor


Last November, with voters in Colorado and Washington state leading
the way, ballot initiatives legalizing, taxing, and regulating
recreational marijuana use passed for the first time ever. In
Colorado, legalization actually outperformed President Obama. An
Oregon effort would almost certainly have prevailed, too, if
proponents there hadn't overreached with toxic legislative language
that scared off donors and earned ridicule from local media.

Now marijuana reform is popping up in state legislatures across the
country. Once the pet project of a few fringe figures, it has
attracted a new generation of politicians from both parties with
credible national aspirations. Democrats like New York Governor Andrew
Cuomo, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker
are staking out liberal stances on drug policy. Even some Republicans
see an opportunity to capitalize on a constituency that shocked the
pundit class with its financial and grassroots muscle -- not to
mention sophisticated campaign tactics -- just a few months ago.

Of course, America has flirted with ending marijuana prohibition
before, but an earlier wave of liberalization came crashing down just
as the modern conservative movement began to crest. "We initially
thought that within a few years we'd have the whole issue taken care
of," says Keith Stroup, a co-founder of NORML, the legalization group
founded in 1970. Eleven politically and geographically diverse states,
including Alaska, New York, and Mississippi, decriminalized the drug
after an official report from Richard Nixon's National Commission on
Marijuana and Drug Abuse found what a plurality of Americans now take
for granted: it's no more harmful (and perhaps less so) than alcohol.

"We assumed that when social change like this begins to happen, that
it probably accelerates and continues right on through," Stroup says.
"Obviously, we were quite mistaken."

Instead, the 1980s heralded the modern War on Drugs, when federal
expenditures on the project skyrocketed, First Lady Nancy Reagan dove
in with her "Just Say No" campaign, and the imperative of disrupting
the drug trade began to creep into American foreign policy. The
national mood shifted so profoundly that one of President Reagan's own
Supreme Court nominees, federal Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, withdrew
from consideration after it emerged that he had smoked pot in college
and as a law professor in his 20s.

But for the first time in decades, legalization advocates see a light
at the end of the tunnel again. "There's been a sea change," says Earl
Blumenauer, the Democratic congressman from Oregon who, as a state
legislator in 1973, helped push through America's first
decriminalization law. "I'm absolutely convinced that in the next four
or five years, it's going to pass the point of no return," he told me,
after which the federal government is likely to decide to treat the
drug more like alcohol, passing tax-and-regulate legislation after the
states force its hand. While he's on the sanguine end of the spectrum,
the fact remains that even if the states are the ones moving fastest
on this issue, the tone in Washington has shifted, too.

"It's become a respected constituency," a once-pessimistic Democratic
congressional aide whose boss backs reform told me of the legalization
crowd. "If you're a member of Congress you can take a drug reform
stance and it's not going to hurt you." This was perhaps best
illustrated by pro-reform challenger Beto O'Rourke's primary victory
over eight-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes last year,
despite being savaged on the airwaves in the socially conservative
south Texas district for being soft on crime. O'Rourke later won the
general election and is now a member of the House.

Looking ahead, the fate of national drug policy rests more than
anything else on the behavior of Obama's electorate, or the "coalition
of the ascendant" -- young people, blacks, Hispanics, single women,
and college-educated whites -- when he is no longer on the ballot.
Despite presiding over more medical marijuana raids in his first term
than George W. Bush did in two, Obama's emergence has arguably
accelerated legalization by drawing these groups into the center of
the political conversation. The demographic trends look promising to
veterans of the cause, most of whom expect to be able to claim an
effective national victory within the next decade as the older voters
who remain the fiercest opponents of legalization die and young people
who embrace it enthusiastically join the voter rolls.

The challenge for reformers is to keep the pressure on and pick away
at the low-hanging fruit: states where popular opinion is already on
their side, and where ballot measures are a viable option. Bypassing
state legislatures, despite members' increased willingness to debate
reform bills this year, remains the preferred plan of attack. Florida
is one tempting prospect. A recent survey (conducted by Democratic
Senator Bill Nelson's pollster on behalf of a legalization group),
showed seven of 10 voters favoring a medical-marijuana constitutional
amendment, but the state throws up hefty obstacles to qualifying for
the ballot. Meanwhile, activists expect to get referenda on full
legalization -- with tax-and-regulate language -- on the ballot in
2016 in states like Oregon, Maine, Alaska, and California that already
have medical programs in place.

Legalization advocates are determined to achieve all of this without
wasting resources on what they see as politically radioactive schemes
that dent their credibility. Like the Tea Party movement on the right,
which has doomed GOP Senate dreams for two consecutive election cycles
now, they have occasionally demonstrated a propensity for overreach.
The failed Oregon campaign would have effectively recast the state
liquor board as a massive pot retailer, and the ballot initiative's
preamble might have been plucked right out of Richard Linklater's 1993
high-school party flick Dazed and Confused, right down to its mention
of George Washington growing hemp plants at Mount Vernon.

That debacle reflects the enduring presence of more extreme voices
within a constituency that has historically kept one foot outside the
traditional political channels. The man behind it was Paul Stanford, a
medical-marijuana titan who NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre
describes as having "a rap sheet longer than your arm." Stanford
pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2011, one of several scrapes with the
IRS. Reformers are worried he'll try again in 2014, rather than
waiting for the higher turnout that comes with a presidential race.

Advocates elsewhere (driven in large part by better fundraising) have
muscled their way onto the agenda by forging alliances with respected
local organizations, elected officials, and even religious leaders who
vouch for the cause and help reduce its political toxicity. Rather
than arguing for the right to get high, they have settled on a more
pragmatic approach, framing the issue as one of redirecting scarce
law-enforcement resources and capturing new revenue during a time of
harsh austerity measures by local and state governments, even if some
economists are skeptical legalized pot will prove to be a cash cow.

"This notion of taxing and regulating is very powerful with people,"
says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who conducted surveys on behalf
of the Colorado legalization campaign. "Women tend to be more nervous
about this than men, but women are the core education funders, and the
idea of putting money into education," which the Colorado law promises
to do, is popular. Polls found national support for marijuana
legalization crack the 50 percent mark beginning in 2011, a symbolic
development more than a practical one, with political elites at every
level of government still lagging behind, but emboldening to
legalization proponents nonetheless.

That young people tend to favor liberalizing drug laws and labor
unions recognize potential new members among pot workers suggests the
constituency might be wrapped under the Democratic tent. On the other
hand, with some Republican leaders toying with the idea of
de-emphasizing social conservatism after getting walloped in November,
moving on pot is an appealing option in some quarters of the right as

"The Republican coalition is obviously not able to attract enough
popular support to stay in power," says Dana Rohrabacher, a
conservative GOP congressman from Orange County, California who is one
of the handful of voices in his party urging a more libertarian
approach on this issue. The problem is "you've got a lot of hang-ups
on the part of Republicans who basically believe that police should be
keeping the lid on the people who they disagree with socially."

Certainly, it would not be a seamless process for the GOP to jump on
the pot-reform bandwagon when polls suggest about 65 to 70 percent of
Republicans, conservatives, and white evangelical voters oppose
legalization. But the octogenarian Evangelical leader and daytime TV
fixture Pat Robertson came out for legalization last year. His stance
suggests the three stools of the Republican coalition might hold up
just fine with a pot plank, which would fit with its states' rights
philosophy and was advocated by conservative economic godfather Milton

"Republicans have an opportunity to use this as a signifier,
particularly to the generation under the age of 40," says Rick Wilson,
a veteran Florida-based GOP media consultant. Which is to say that
even if the party remains determined for the time being to avoid being
branded "pro-pot", a few up-and-comers making a move on legalization
or decriminalization could be a fairly harmless way to improve their
standing with younger voters.

No one better personifies this hope than Rand Paul, who has emerged as
one of the GOP's top-tier leaders. Like his father, former Rep. Ron
Paul, the Kentucky senator wants to end the War on Drugs, and he has
called for the federal government to let states (including Colorado
and Washington) make their own drug policy. A win at the CPAC straw
poll in mid-March, where young conservatives came out in big numbers,
suggests there is a growing constituency for his brand of

"Rand Paul has had more impact on the Republican Party in three weeks
than his father had in three presidential campaigns," says Roger
Stone, a former Nixon and Reagan operative and mischief-maker who is
mulling a Libertarian gubernatorial run in Florida next year. His
campaign would center in large part on the marijuana amendment, in
hopes of attracting younger voters. (Stone has also come out for
marriage equality and is known for his lists of the 10 best- and
worst-dressed celebrities, though he might encounter difficulty
explaining away the tattoo of Nixon on his back.)

Even if they feel closer than ever to the ultimate prize, legalization
advocates concede they still have a tough fight ahead. "All of this is
fraught with uncertainty, because not one word of the Controlled
Substances Act has changed," St. Pierre says. The Department of
Justice has yet to release an official response to the new laws in
Washington and Colorado, having been engaged in discussions with the
governors of the two states for months now. The smart money expects a
decision to come down soon, as Attorney General Eric Holder promised
again at a recent hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"There could always be a backlash," warns Mark Kleiman, an expert on
drug policy at UCLA who coauthored a book on the nuts and bolts of
marijuana legalization and whose firm, BOTEC, was recently hired to
help Washington design and implement its regulation scheme. "The Feds
don't want a system where Colorado replaces Mexico as the source of
marijuana for the whole country, and that could happen."

The DEA has been active in the Centennial State for years raiding
medical marijuana facilities, and the grow-your-own provision in
Amendment 64, Colorado's legalization initiative, is a generous one.

"On the other hand, California is already a clusterfuck, and the
voters don't care," Kleiman points out, referring to a Field poll --
considered the most authoritative in the Golden State -- that recently
found a healthy majority of voters there on board with legalizing
recreational use after rejecting it in 2010 (and despite de facto
legalization already being in place via the state's incredibly lax
medical program).

But even if the administration defies the gaggle of former DEA agents
(some of whom now make a living in the private sector off the Drug
War) clamoring for a federal injunction and essentially allows the
states to proceed, advocates don't expect Obama to engage on behalf of
the cause -- his past membership in the Choom Gang notwithstanding.
That task will most likely be foisted on his party's next presidential
candidate, who will be tempted to develop some kind of coherent stance
that squares with the reality that at least some of those electing him
or her will simultaneously be voting to legalize pot. Marijuana
legalization is a tangible reality now, and a new crop of ambitious
politicians on the left and right are acting accordingly.

Matt Taylor is a reporter living in Brooklyn. His writing has
appeared in Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and New
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MAP posted-by: Matt