Legalizing weed is good policy, Democrats say, and good politics

LED lights tint the grow room at District Growers in Washington in 2019.
LED lights tint the grow room at District Growers in Washington in 2019.Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount

Two states, New Jersey and Virginia, regularly elect governors in the year after each presidential election. Timing aside, it's rare that the race for Chris Christie's old job looks anything like the race for Thomas Jefferson's.

That changed this week, when both states moved toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed three bills to start legal sales before the November election; in Virginia, Democrats began merging House and Senate bills that would legalize weed by 2024.

"The public doesn't see marijuana use as being the scourge that it used to be," said Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell, one of the Democrats promoting the bill. "If we don't take action this session, the next cycle will be about marijuana legalization."

The more popular legal marijuana gets, the more elections are held on it - something that's increasingly encouraging for Democrats. Last year, every state that held a referendum on legal weed approved it. Democratic governors in several states where the drug is prohibited have used their budget addresses to endorse legalization, citing the fiscal crunches caused by the coronavirus, successful legalization drives in nearby states and the lack of an organized opposition.

"Sports betting, Internet gaming and legalized marijuana are happening all around us," Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, said last week in his annual State of the State speech. "Let's not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or, even worse, underground markets."

Legalization, which Democrats and Republicans treated carefully just a few years ago, has quickly become more popular than either party. But its political support is mostly concentrated among Democrats, and the party increasingly sees it as an issue that can bring in voters. Late last year, when the House passed a federal legalization measure for the first time, six Democratic members opposed it, two of whom were lame ducks headed into retirement. Five Republicans supported it, and their leadership accused Democrats of focusing on "drugs" instead of jobs.

In the states, as in Congress, opposition to legalization has become a Republican issue. In Idaho, where Democrats have gone winless statewide for years, Republican legislatures have advanced a constitutional ban on any drug legalization, putting it on the state's next ballot. "I beg you, we have to keep this state clean," Sen. Van Burtenshaw said during the debate on the measure.

In South Dakota, where 62% of voters supported President Donald Trump's reelection and 54% voted for legal marijuana, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has taken the lead in preventing legalization. This month, a judge struck down the ballot measure passed in November, and Noem has threatened to veto any legalization efforts passed by the GOP majority.

For that reason and a few others, Democratic opposition to legalization largely has disappeared. The Virginia and New Jersey measures are both part of the party's 2021 agenda, with their gubernatorial hopefuls in favor and Republican candidates opposed. In New Jersey, the legalization drive has squeezed Jack Ciattarelli, who has supported decriminalization in the past but came out against the package of Democratic changes alongside the state's Policemen's Benevolent Association.

"Today's decision by Trenton Democrats to prohibit police officers from even asking questions to a car full of underage kids who appear to be smoking weed is outrageous," Ciattarelli said in a statement, which his campaign referred to when asked about his position.

But legalization advocates said that opposition, the kind that had previously come from police and prosecutors' associations, was harder to hear now.

"Every once in a while you have some pediatrician who's worried about the long-term effects, or someone worried about family use," said Emily Kaltenbach, a director at the Drug Policy Alliance who is working to pass legalization through New Mexico's Democratic legislature. "But there's no organized opposition."

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, endorsed legalization in her State of the State address; in Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included it in his budget proposal, drawing opposition from the Republican-led legislature and teeing up an issue for his 2022 reelection campaign. In Minnesota, where Democrats blame the Legal Marijuana Now Party for siphoning some liberal votes in tight races, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz backed legalization before the election and has gotten behind it in budget negotiations. Republicans, who have not won a statewide race in Minnesota since 2006, have blocked legalization while cracking open a window for a debate on medical marijuana.

All of this has happened without any direction from the Biden administration. The only top-tier candidate for the party's nomination who did not back outright legalization, Biden has suggested that he may de-schedule the drug, removing it from a list of illegal substances and allowing states more flexibility to sell it. In his first day of hearings, attorney general nominee Merrick Garland, who as a District of Columbia Circuit judge in 2012 sided with the DEA against drug decriminalization campaigners, told Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., that his Justice Department would continue to let legalization proceed in states.

"It does not seem to me useful the use of limited resources that we have to be pursuing prosecutions in states that have legalized and are regulating the use of marijuana, either medically or otherwise," Garland told Booker, a legalization advocate and now chair of the criminal justice and counterterrorism subcommittee.

State legislators and state parties were expecting that. So are investors, who have been pushing for congressional passage of the SAFE Banking Act, which would remove restrictions on dispensaries and was backed by two dozen Republican House members in the last Congress. Matt Hawkins, the Dallas-based managing partner of Entourage Effect Capital, said that full-scale national legalization was years away, but that political opposition was getting weaker. "There's plenty of bipartisan momentum behind this," Hawkins aid. "It's the only thing I can think of that's bipartisan these days."