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 well.
"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 Friedman.
"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 Republicanism.
"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.