Since his inauguration, drug policy reform advocates have tirelessly petitioned Barack Obama to have his “marijuana moment”. And for good reason – during the 2008 presidential campaign Obama said that he would respect states’ rights and cease federal prosecution of medical marijuana dispensaries.
Four years later, those very states have seen more dispensary raids than they did under the entire Bush presidency. In that same time frame, violence has continued to expand and intensify throughout Mexico, to the point where 33 people die every day in connection with the drug war. And in New York City, the “stop and frisk” program set up by the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has continued to snag more citizens in its dragnet, resulting in the arrest of 150,000 New Yorkers for marijuana possession since Obama took the White House.
In tandem with, or perhaps in reaction to, these various strands of escalation, public opinion has steadily grown in opposition to the drug war. In October 2011, Gallup reported a record high 50% support for legalising marijuana. Last week the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a study that found another record first: in 2011, American teens smoked more marijuana than cigarettes. And so regardless of whether or not Obama acknowledges it, it seems the marijuana moment has arrived.
A string of events over the last seven weeks suggests the onset of a trend in which high-profile American political actors, including sitting officials, have begun to come out of the drug-war closet to publicly voice support for policy reform.
On 17 May Brooklyn supreme court justice Gustin Reichbach took to the New York Times to make the case for medical marijuana, citing his own illegal use to cope with chemotherapy and arguing that marijuana legalisation “is not a law and order issue; it is a medical and a human rights issue”.
On 30 May, in a congressional primary in El Paso, Texas, eight-term incumbent and hardline drug warrior Silvestre Reyes went head to head with first-time challenger Beto O’Rourke, former city councillor and a critic of the drug war who favours legalising marijuana. O’Rourke won handily.
In New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to decriminalise marijuana possession (25g or less,) citing how current laws disproportionately affect black and Hispanic youth. The Republican Bloomberg immediately voiced support for the motion.
In Mexico, amending the militarisation of the drug war is a dominant issue and a defining feature of the upcoming election. All three of the front-running candidates have turned away from Felipe Calderon’s gunfire-heavy approach, promising instead to prioritise a reduction in violence. It remains to be seen if any of these events are indicative of a fundamental change in the thinking patterns of the political class, or mere peripheral blips across an otherwise muted policy landscape. But they do show a swing in the odds.
It is no longer a definite risk to openly criticise the drug war or advocate for marijuana reform. On the contrary, broaching the subject can deliver votes, win elections and increase a politician’s popularity across a broad spectrum of demographics. This is relatively new. But as focus groups still dominate election strategies, politicians remain wary of issues that haven’t been sufficiently tested, regardless of personal conviction. This is not new. When it comes to doing the right thing, or at the very least, favouring facts over fear, it’s strictly a numbers game. An issue isn’t really an issue until the numbers say it is. And even then, said issue remains immaterial until it becomes a proven fact that it will get bodies into the ballot box.
Which is why Colorado is so interesting. A battleground state where Romney and Obama are running dead-even in the polls, the Colorado presidential ballot will also feature a measure asking voters whether or not they support the legalisation of marijuana.
Traditional wisdom would suggest that those who are enticed to the voting booth by a marijuana measure would be naturally inclined towards voting Democrat. But after four years of dispensary raids and a shifting policy landscape that makes Obama’s views on marijuana look outdated and bizarrely conservative, that’s a risky assumption.
Ironically, it’s in these moments of mathematical anarchy when a politician has a better chance of doing something genuine.