Politics

Why Democrats Don’t Want to Talk About Legalizing Marijuana

Still stinging from being called soft on drugs a generation ago

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is one of a few Democrats in the Senate who vocally support legalizing marijuana. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As the Trump administration begins to crack down on states that legalized marijuana, advocates for legalization hope Democrats will take their side.

But many Democrats are still squeamish about fully embracing the drug. 

Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department would reverse the policy from the Obama administration that restricted federal prosecution of marijuana offenses in states where it was legalized.

When asked, Democratic senators were cagey about how they felt about getting behind full legalization for recreational purposes, even in states that have taken the plunge.

Both California and Nevada voted in 2016 to legalize marijuana. But the two senators elected from those states that year sound less enthusiastic than the voters.

Watch: 4 Arrests After Pot ‘Smoke In’ on Capitol Lawn

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s communications director Ray Benitez said Cortez Masto does not support legalization but will defend the interests of her state in the face of Sessions’ actions.

“Because that is up to the voter, she is standing up for what voters want,” he said. “She’s a big believer in defending and supporting states rights.”

Tyrone Gayle, press secretary for Sen. Kamala Harris, said she supports reclassifying marijuana from a Schedule I drug, in the same class as heroin and LSD, to Schedule II, which includes pharmaceutical drugs “with a high potential for abuse.”

But Harris also “believes states should be allowed to do what they want,” Gayle said.

California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, who opposed the state’s efforts to legalize marijuana in 2016, dodged the question when asked about Sessions’ move to ramp up federal prosecution.

“It’s all unclear to me, and it’d be helpful to have some clarity so we know exactly what the situation is,” she said.

Fearing weakness

The wariness around fully supporting marijuana comes despite the fact that public attitudes toward the drug have become more favorable.

In October, a Gallup poll showed 64 percent of Americans supported legalizing marijuana, up from 58 percent in 2013. Only a third of Americans supported legalization in 2001.

Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said many Democrats are afraid of being seen as weak on drugs.

“I think it’s the scars left over from the ’80s and early ’90s where Republicans weaponized being soft on crime,” he said. Those charges, in his view, were “full of baloney.”

Altieri said championing legalization could pay political dividends for the party.

“In some ways that point may have passed to look like you are taking a principled stance,” he said. “[But] this action by Jeff Sessions should drive the Democrats.”

And those who don’t get on board “are going to find themselves on the wrong side of history,” he said.

Other experts urged caution. Sam Kamin, professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver, said while support for legalization is increasing, it isn’t enough to move an election.

“I hear from political types support for marijuana is broad but not very deep,” he said. “While it’s popular, it’s not the thing that changes people’s minds to support a candidate.”

Campaigning on cannabis

Marijuana could become something of a fault line for Democrats as they head into the midterms and look ahead to 2020.

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is up for re-election this year, when asked about full legalization, said, “I support medicinal marijuana and have for some time.”

Other Democrats are taking a chance on the issue.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has been explicit in his support of legalization. Last year, he introduced legislation supporting full legalization nationwide, and he said there will likely be more momentum among Democrats as their constituents push them.

“People are ahead of the party,” he said. 

Booker’s legislation would withhold some federal funds from states where marijuana is illegal if their laws have a disproportionate effect on communities of color.

Altieri said framing marijuana legalization as a racial justice issue is a winning message.

“I think if you are talking about criminal justice reform or racial discrimination, the criminalization of marijuana has played a role in all those,” Kamin said. “I think that particularly for core Democratic voters, that has a lot of resonance.”

Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas is making legalization of marijuana part of his Senate campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz.

“If I don’t bring it up in a meeting, it is brought up by a constituent,” he said. “I can be in a small town [or] big city, and it cuts across party lines.”

But Kamin said support for marijuana legalization will gain steam only when more moderates come out in support of legalization.

“It’s the centrist vote that will move the conversation along.”

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