The Federal Prohibition on Marijuana Is On Borrowed Time

AP Photo/Josh Edelson

A marijuana plant is seen on Hippie Hill in San Francisco

If you're a politician wondering whether you should try pot, I've got news for you: Everybody's doing it. Why not give it a try? You don't want people to think you're square, do you?

By "try pot," I don't mean actually smoke it (though who knows what's going on in the cloakroom these days). I mean come out for some form of marijuana legalization. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner recently joined the board of a cannabis company, and last week on semi-official marijuana holiday April 20, certified cool dude Chuck Schumer, the leader of Democrats in the Senate, announced that he will soon be introducing legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. Oh how times have changed.

They're hardly the only ones. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, being pushed to the left by a primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, now says the state should start preparing to legalize it. Major corporations like HP are inching their way toward involvement in some corner of what is already a multibillion-dollar industry. And President Trump just struck a deal with Republican senator Cory Gardner to pull back on Attorney General Jeff Sessions's plans to crack down on states that have legalized cannabis, like Gardner's home state of Colorado (though if I were Gardner I wouldn't be too quick to take the president at his word).

As fast as things have been changing around the marijuana issue, the real change is likely to come three years from now. That's when we may find ourselves with a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president—both of whom would have made a promise to end the federal prohibition and leave the matter up to the states. At that point, Republican opposition may have dimmed to the point where it isn't even much of a fight.

Schumer's announcement illustrates that support for federal decriminalization has become the consensus position of the Democratic Party. That isn't the same as support for outright legalization, since there are even some Republicans who think the question should be left to the states, which is a much safer position for even Democrats to take. But every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate is likely to support an end to the federal ban, and you'll probably hear at least one or two of them state their support for legalization more broadly.

That's a far cry from 1992, when Bill Clinton said he smoked once as a student but didn't inhale (I actually believe him; even in his 20s, the man was triangulating). Just two years ago, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders technically supported federal decriminalization, but were plainly uncomfortable about it. Clinton recommended that other states wait to see how things turned out in Colorado and Washington before they decide whether to legalize it themselves.

But they aren't waiting. As of now there are nine states plus the District of Columbia that have made marijuana legal for recreational use. Another 20 states allow medical marijuana, leaving only 21 where the drug is still completely illegal. All of those 21 are governed entirely by Republicans, with the exception of Virginia, which has a Democratic governor.

As politicians usually do, Democrats are chasing public opinion. Just since 2000, the number of Americans supporting legalization has doubled, going from around 30 percent to well over 60 percent (see here or here). While Jeff Sessions may go into battle on this issue thinking that he's going to show those dang longhairs once and for all, marijuana is slowly escaping the baggage of the 1960s. Even healthy numbers of Republicans—43 percent in this Pew Research Center poll—are ready for legalization.

But the culture war never really dies—especially for the GOP. Republican officeholders know about the generational divide on the marijuana issue, and know that older voters are the core of their base. So even as their position grows more and more unpopular, they won't be able to abandon it completely.

Which is why we could well see a similar evolution on cannabis as we saw on same-sex marriage, in which it becomes a reality on the ground, the apocalyptic predictions of opponents don't come true, and after a while Republican objections grow quieter and quieter. If you press a major Republican officeholder on the marriage equality these days they may say they still support "traditional marriage," but they almost never bring it up themselves. They know that public opinion has passed them by and there's no margin for them in fighting about it.

You can already sense that they're feeling something similar on marijuana. While the Supreme Court isn't going to declare a universal right to smoke pot, we'll see legalization spread steadily, from blue states to purple states and finally—even if it takes a while—to red states. If the politicians don't do it, the voters will: There are likely to be marijuana initiatives on the ballot in multiple states this November, including even some deep-red states like Utah, where a medical marijuana initiative has likely qualified for the ballot. The opposition of the Mormon church may not be enough to defeat it, given that medical marijuana enjoys overwhelming support, with polls finding as many as nine in ten Americans in favor.

There's a good chance that Democrats will take back the House this November, then win the presidency and control of the Senate in 2020. With control of the government in hand, 2021 would see a raft of progressive legislation on a variety of issues, many of which will produce bitter, lengthy legislative battles. But ending the federal marijuana ban? That one will be relatively easy. 

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