What Marijuana Legalization Won't Be in 2016

If you're an advocate of marijuana legalization, you've had nothing but good news for some time now, and more keeps coming. Today at that snappy new Vox thing the hip kids put together, there's an article pointing out that although many people predicted a spike in crime once pot became legal in Colorado, statistics from Denver show that crime has actually declined a bit over the last few months compared to the same period in 2013. It's a small period of time, to be sure, but it doesn't look as though there has been an explosion of robberies or any other kind of crime.

And with the rapid movement of public opinion in favor of legalization, it would be easy to predict that politicians are going to be changing their positions very soon, or as the Atlantic puts it in an article today, "Weed Is the Sleeper Issue of 2016." OK, so we can put that headline down to an overzealous editor; the article itself, which runs through the positions of a number of potential presidential candidates, shows that none of them have actually changed their minds. (And a note of warning: if you see a reference to Rick Perry and "decriminalization," don't be confused. Though he has used the word himself out of what may be confusion, what he actually wants is for the cops to arrest you for possession and then send you to rehab instead of to jail. Which is better than going to jail, but not as good as just not being arrested in the first place.)

There's no question that the political profile of this issue is changing fast. But I doubt we're going to see much change from presidential candidates about it. This is where the analogy with same-sex marriage doesn't hold.

As we all know, public opinion on marriage equality shifted rapidly, and politicians shifted in response. In 2008, for instance, all the contending Democratic presidential candidate supported civil unions, but none supported full marriage rights. In the next presidential primary, all the Democrats will support marriage equality, and most if not all of the Republicans will probably be in favor of some form of civil unions.

Public opinion on marijuana legalization is very similar to that of marriage equality, both in the pattern of change and the correlation with age. Here are two graphs from the Pew Research Center that make it clear:

Just looking at that, you might predict that Democratic politicians would already be stampeding over each other to come out for legalization. But the ones with national ambitions aren't yet, and they may not for some time. The reason is that neither they nor voters see pot as nearly the kind of profound moral question that marriage equality is. Putting aside for the moment the awful consequences of the drug war, what we're mostly talking about when we talk about full legalization is whether people can use pot recreationally without breaking the law, which is great for those who enjoy it, but doesn't rise to a question of their fundamental dignity as human beings.

So it's hard to see cannabis legalization becoming a non-negotiable litmus-test issue for Democrats in the way marriage equality has become. A Democrat today who doesn't support marriage equality will be told that he has fundamentally different values from liberal voters. A Democrat who doesn't support legalization? Well, he may be out step a bit, or behind the times, or cowardly for worrying he'll be called soft on crime, or a general stick-in-the-mud. But not too many people are going to say that he can't honestly call himself a liberal.

That might change if the Colorado and Washington experiments are successful and legalization spreads to other states. And legalization might still be a powerful tool to get young voters to the polls wherever it gets put on the ballot. But I think we'll have to wait an election or two before the effects rise all the way up to the presidential candidates.

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