Government & Politics

The next national election could shape up as a rush for legal marijuana

As the momentum continues for marijuana legalization, it is more likely to become an important topic in the 2016 presidential race — one that candidates won’t be able to avoid. “Marijuana has become an issue that candidates have got to pay attention to,” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary.
As the momentum continues for marijuana legalization, it is more likely to become an important topic in the 2016 presidential race — one that candidates won’t be able to avoid. “Marijuana has become an issue that candidates have got to pay attention to,” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary. The Associated Press

So who’s running in 2016?

Hillary? Probably. Jeb? Maybe. Rand? Likely. Joe? Who knows?

Closer to a sure thing: Mary Jane.

After voters added Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia to the legalized marijuana column earlier this month, the next major national election could shape up as the Great Pot Rush of 2016.

At least five states, including the most populous, California, are expected to have marijuana issues on the ballot. And that’s not counting Missouri, where supporters have asked the secretary of state’s office to approve their petition drive.

Other states may join in as well — though probably not Kansas, where previous efforts went nowhere.

The 2016 election could be the big one in the evolution of marijuana policy in this country. When voters in Colorado and Washington state approved recreational marijuana two years ago, some looked upon the move with skepticism and saw it as an experiment.

But now with Oregon in the mix and California perhaps headed that way, the entire West Coast could soon be marijuana friendly. Throw in the other scattered states and governors everywhere might start wondering, “Why aren’t we getting that money?”

And contrary to a recent cartoon put out by Drug Free America, there have been no reports of a zombie apocalypse in Washington and Colorado. Keep in mind too that not too many years ago gambling was largely illegal in the U.S. Now you can buy a lottery ticket and go to a casino in most states. Another parallel? Same-sex marriage.

Both sides on marijuana are gearing up for a fight so widespread it could be considered a national one — especially with its effect on a presidential race. Whoever takes the oath on Jan. 20, 2017, could in theory snuff out the whole marijuana industry with one call to the attorney general.

Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, told The Wall Street Journal recently that marijuana has emerged as a sleeper issue for presidential candidates.

“All of a sudden the ground is shifting, and it’s uncomfortable and complicated,” Fleischer said. “Marijuana has become an issue that candidates have got to pay attention to.”

Especially when considering that marijuana outdid many winning candidates on Nov. 4. In Oregon, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, won re-election with 55.67 percent. Marijuana got 55.97 percent.

In Alaska, independent candidate Bill Walker won the governor’s race with 47.86 percent. Marijuana: 52.87 percent.

So does New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie really want to go to war in 2016 saying he is strongly opposed to any legal marijuana when voters in nearly half the states and the District of Columbia have said they want it?

To Christie and other candidates, marijuana is no longer a skeleton-in-the-closet question. It is one of national policy.

Pro-marijuana forces think now is the time to make the big surge. The three wins this month came during a Republican blitz. Gallup polling shows a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. And while pot has long been considered a liberal cause, it’s become a libertarian one too. On Nov. 4, red state Alaska, a land of rugged individualism, approved legal pot 52.87 to 47.13 percent.

Also, 2016 will be a presidential year, an election that should bring pot-friendly demographic groups to the polls. Those include millennials and baby boomers. The group in between — Generation X — not so much.

But as soon as votes were counted Nov. 4, anti-marijuana forces began readying what might be their last stand. Next up, according to observers: Maine, Massachusetts, Arizona and Nevada, along with California — all of which already have medical marijuana.

“We’ve been anticipating this push,” said Scott Chipman, a California-based national coordinator of Citizens Against Legalization of Marijuana. “We’ll have to go all guns ablazing.”

The conservative website Townhall.com recently questioned why New York City tried to ban Big Gulp drinks while “the welcome mat was being rolled out for potheads in Colorado.” The article went on to question why cigarette smokers were treated as pariahs while legal marijuana becomes more prevalent.

Opponents will argue that marijuana is addictive and harmful to physical and mental health. But their big bullet will be that the federal government still lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the same as heroin and LSD. The designation means it has no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse. According to federal law, it is a crime to possess or sell marijuana.

“We believe marijuana is a disaster for families and teenagers, and that is the fight we will wage,” Chipman said. “We don’t believe legal marijuana is inevitable across this country.”

He pointed to Florida, a state that rejected medical marijuana on Nov. 4.

That measure, however, was part of a constitutional amendment that required 60 percent for approval. It got 57 percent.

Republican Rick Scott won the Florida governor race with 48.2 percent.

Sorting out new laws

No question the country has come a long way since William Randolph Hearst ordered his newspapers to run stories linking marijuana use to violent crime and insanity. That was in the 1930s.

Historians later linked Hearst’s motivation to his worry that hemp production would decrease the value of his vast timber interests.

But a lot of time passed before California became the first state to approve medical marijuana in 1996.

The argument then and now was that people with certain health problems benefited from ingesting tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Glaucoma sufferers said it reduced the pressure on their eyes. Cancer patients were less nauseated after chemotherapy treatment. People with multiple sclerosis said it reduced their pain.

Since then, 22 other states and the District of Columbia have made the drug legal for medicinal and — in the case of Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Alaska and D.C. — recreational use.

While recreational use remains illegal in states that allow medical marijuana only, the penalties in many states have been reduced to the point that the punishment for possessing small amounts of pot is akin to getting a traffic ticket.

As of Wednesday in New York City, where pot is legal for medicinal use only, possession of 25 grams of marijuana or less is no longer grounds for arrest. Instead, citations will bring a maximum fine of $100 for a first offense and $300 for subsequent ones. In announcing the change, though, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was not in favor of legalization.

“Any substance that alters your consciousness is a potential danger,” he said.

As policymakers across the country consider their next moves, they will be looking to Colorado and Washington. Each law is different and there have been a few bumps as authorities, retailers and marijuana users sort things out.

For instance, while possession of an ounce or less of pot is now legal in Washington state, it’s still against the law to possess or smoke pot in public. Violators are subject to a $27 fine, plus court costs.

Seattle police issued 100 tickets in the first seven months of the year, but a court vacated those tickets when a review showed that a disproportionate number of those cited were black or homeless men.

It turned out that 80 percent of the tickets were issued by a single police officer who disagreed with legalization. Since then, new instructions have gone out to police on how best to enforce the law.

“You warn first and then you ticket,” said Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for the city attorney’s office, “because the goal is education.”

That learning curve applies to both authorities and the marijuana industry.

Consider: Seattle has 200 medical marijuana dispensaries but only three retail pot stores out of the 21 the law allows, Mills said. Finding a location isn’t easy, given restrictions that make it illegal to sell marijuana within 1,000 feet of schools, parks or recreation centers.

Smoking pot in public also is forbidden in Colorado, where it is legal to possess an ounce or less if you are 21 or older. However, to guard against Colorado pot being taken out of state, nonresidents are limited to a quarter ounce per transaction.

But the resourceful tourist may consider that merely an inconvenience.

“There is nothing illegal about visiting more than 1 store a day, as long as you don’t exceed the 1 ounce per person possession limit,” according to the Colorado Pot Guide.

One thing that appeals to states eyeing legalization is the newfound tax revenue.

A year after approving recreational use, Colorado voters approved a 25 percent tax on pot sales, which by some estimates was expected to bring in $70 million in new revenue this year.

But collections were slightly below that pace through the first eight months of the year, with some suggesting that many users were trying to save money by buying medicinal marijuana, which is taxed at a lower rate.

What’s clear, though, is America’s flip toward marijuana.

In 1969, a Gallup poll put support for legalized marijuana at 12 percent.

Nearly a decade later, the number was up to 28 percent, and by 2003 it had risen to 34 percent. Support has steadily increased since and finally hit 50 percent in 2011.

Last year found a solid majority for the first time with 58 percent, but researchers think the number was tainted somewhat by the effect of recreational marijuana’s launch in Colorado.

The latest numbers from Gallup put support for legal marijuana at 51 percent. The poll was conducted last month as part of a runup to the midterm election.

Many supporters mention the cost of incarcerating marijuana offenders and statistics that show a disproportionate number of those locked up are poor and minorities.

A high-profile change of mind came in 2012 from one of the country’s best-known doctors, Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and the chief medical correspondent for CNN. Gupta had long opposed medical marijuana because of studies that showed it had potential for great abuse and no medical benefit.

But Gupta later concluded that neither of those is true.

“We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that,” Gupta wrote.

Gearing up for a fight

Don’t tell Chipman that marijuana is the same as alcohol. Not everyone who drinks wants to get a buzz, he said.

“But everybody who smokes pot wants to get a buzz — that’s why they do it,” Chipman said.

Chipman acknowledges that the landscape has changed and that momentum is on the proponents’ side. But the best argument against legalization, he said, is legalization.

“Teen use is way up in Colorado,” he said. “The peak for the country was 11 percent of the people using drugs in 1979. Then we had DARE programs and ‘Just Say No.’ The numbers went down. We don’t want them to go back up again.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, however, reports that the 30-day rate of teens smoking marijuana actually dropped since the law went into effect.

Still, children and teens will be a key opposition playing card in 2016. As will driving under the influence.

The Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police came out against pot there, saying it would place too much burden on law enforcement to identify impaired drivers.

Ben Tulchin, a California pollster and researcher, said there remains enough opposition to give marijuana a fight. Suburban soccer moms, some Latinos, non-libertarian conservatives and the religious right still have serious misgivings.

“But no question where the momentum is and that’s why things are looking like they are for 2016,” Tulchin said.

Still, hanging over all this is the person who occupies the White House. Every time somebody buys pot in Colorado or Washington, a federal crime is committed.

Thus far, President Barack Obama has let it go on without interference. He has two more years, and with two more states and the District of Columbia going recreational next year, it’s unlikely he would suddenly go vigilant.

But what about the new president in 2017?

Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio don’t like legal marijuana. Rand Paul, known for libertarian views, is open to the idea.

Hillary Clinton once said on CNN: “On recreational, you know, states are the laboratories of democracy. We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is.”

Joe Biden has offered the Obama administration’s line that the federal government opposes legalization but thinks pursuing people who smoke marijuana would be a waste of resources.

Jeb Bush opposed the recent medical marijuana question in Florida.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry favors decriminalization and says marijuana laws should be left up to the states.

Dan Viets, a Columbia attorney who works on pro-marijuana efforts, said it’s important to remember that some states had begun to repeal Prohibition back in the 1930s before the federal government acted.

“We’re seeing a similar pattern now with marijuana,” Viets said. “It’s absolutely clear that a majority of Americans favor legalization. But an even larger majority wants the federal government to stay out of it.

“It’s highly unlikely that someone who says he’s going to sic the (Drug Enforcement Administration) on Colorado could get elected now.”

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

23 states and the District of Columbia have approved some form of legalized marijuana.

5 states — and maybe more — are expected to have recreational marijuana on the ballot in 2016.

51 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal, according to a Gallup poll last month.

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