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."