Marijuana seems to be all over the news today, so I thought I'd just give a quick rundown of the recent developments, with a little call to action at the end.
The biggest news comes from New Hampshire, where the governor just signed a medical marijuana bill into law, making the Granite State the nineteenth state to have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes. Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia means that almost 40 percent of the country has now approved for medical use a substance the federal government continues to define as having "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." Except for, you know, the 19 states plus the Nation's Capital, where it is accepted for medical use.
This is doublethink of the purest sort, of course. Of those states which have legalized medical marijuana, not a single one has had such a bad experience with doing so that they've reconsidered and made it illegal again. Not one. So much for the doomsayers who predicted the end of civilization as we know it, eh?
In fact, the disconnect between the states and the federal government is getting so large and impossible to ignore that the Democratic Party of California -- the nation's most-populous state -- has now gone on the record calling for President Obama to rethink his extreme policies on marijuana. In part, this declaration reads:
The California Democratic Party requests: President Obama to allow the newly enacted marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington to go into effect with no federal interference, and... end the Department of Justice interference and raids by federal agencies in states with medical marijuana laws.
This is rather extraordinary, since this is coming from the president's own party (or, more precisely, the biggest state party organization within his own national political party). The people are leading on the issue, and -- slowly, slowly -- the leaders are beginning to follow.
In Colorado, progress is being made towards an orderly implementation of allowing recreational marijuana sales to adults, once again proving the naysayers wrong. Individual cities and counties are in the process of deciding whether to allow "pot shops" or not, in much the same way alcohol sales are regulated in some states (with "dry" counties next to "wet" ones). America already lives with a patchwork of laws for alcohol sales, regulating such things as Sunday sales or beer alcohol content or what sorts of stores can sell it, and it seems Colorado is introducing this same "local-based" system for marijuana sales. The only danger seems to be that if they interfere with the free market too much, the possibility exists that the black market will step in where it is needed. Which is the status quo, by the way.
It has been almost nine months since the states of Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana at the ballot box. In all that time, the Department of Justice has not officially made any comment on this blatant challenge to federal law. They haven't said so much as a peep. This leads some to conclude that the feds are going to take a hands-off approach, but it could just as easily mean they're going to continue their crackdown on marijuana which ignores state law entirely. Which is what the California Democrats have now gone on the record begging the White House to stop doing.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article which (long before the Supreme Court ruled on the issue) predicting that we had reached a "tipping point" as a country on the subject of gay marriage. I cannot say that we've reached the same sort of pivotal moment on marijuana, but I think the time is arriving soon.
I would advise advocacy groups both local, state, and national to take a page from the gay rights activists' playbook, to hasten the time when national Democratic politicians feel unconstrained enough to begin calling for an end to the War On Weed. The advice is simple: money talks.
Obama has done more for gay rights than any other American president. But he didn't enter office intending to get out in front of the issue as much as he has subsequently done. Gay activists pushed him out in front on the issue -- and they did so by threatening to cut off their political donations to Democrats.
California is called, cynically, by its inhabitants, "the ATM of the Democratic Party." National Democrats (Obama included) swoop in to hold fundraisers in either the Bay Area or Los Angeles, collect lots of checks, and then disappear. California is otherwise largely ignored by national Democrats, since it is such a blue state that Republicans are completely irrelevant, politically. It's about as "safe" a state for Democrats as you can get, to put it another way.
But what would happen if California Democrats not only declared their opposition to Obama's drug policy, but threatened to turn off the money spigot over the issue? What would happen if they did so loudly and publicly -- say, right around the time when the Democratic presidential candidates started raising money in earnest for 2016? What would happen if they demanded a saner drug policy from every candidate running?
Such a strategy worked wonders for gay rights, especially when it came to all the big-bucks donors in Hollywood. Marijuana advocacy organizations are mostly focused on getting the laws changed, state by state. They put their money directly into politics, in the form of ballot initiatives. They don't have the funds to be big players on the national political scene, because they are bearing the expense of the battle at the state level.
But I bet there are just as many folks down in Hollywood who support ending the federal crackdown on marijuana as those who support gay rights. And these people do play politics on the national level. With the state's Democratic Party now behind them, I think it's time to make marijuana a national litmus test, when it comes to political donations.
Tipping points, when they happen, often happen with blinding speed. In 2008, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama would publicly state that they were in favor of gay marriage. By 2012, Obama was giving not just full-throated support but also directing his Justice Department to stop even fighting it in the courts. As I said, I don't think we're quite there yet on marijuana. But we could make a lot of progress in the run-up to 2016. California Democrats could lead the way on the issue, if they made a public statement that they weren't interested in holding any $20,000-a-plate fundraisers for the benefit of any candidate or party who doesn't publicly take a different position on marijuana than the Obama Justice Department. Until this happened, the Golden State ATM would be closed. Period.
Optimistic? Possibly. But, hey, it's certainly worth a try.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant