Even as a growing number of political candidates have embraced marijuana decriminalization — some promote it as a way of combatting the opioid crisis, others as a part of criminal justice reform — many say they’re still making up their minds. A handful of pro-pot Democrats have been attacked on the issue, which is why some progressives want Democratic leaders to fully embrace cannabis so the party can show a unified front. Unlike establishment partisan positions on taxes or healthcare — where parties write the play-books — with pot, individual politicians are making it up as they go. And some say they’re going to lose votes as a result.
“The Democratic Party has yet to grasp that marijuana is an issue that moves a core segment of voters which they keep on claiming they want to target, which are white men,” Justin Strekal, political director for marijuana advocacy group NORML, tells Rolling Stone. When it comes to marijuana, there’s been no leadership from Washington, even as polls reveal more than 60 percent of Americans want legalization.
Though Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced his own marijuana bill to decriminalize and regulate at the federal level, he won’t commit to bringing it up for a vote if he becomes majority leader. It’s the same story in the House — when asked if she’d bring a marijuana bill up for a vote, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wavered. “I don’t know where the president is on any of this. So any decision about how we go forward would have to reflect where we can get the result,” she said. “You’ve heard me say it, over and over: Public sentiment is everything.”
With Democratic leaders refusing to commit to even voting on marijuana, their candidate’s positions on it are as much of a patchwork as the nation’s disparate marijuana laws — and it could affect some of the most contested races in the country.
This year the battle for New York’s 19th District is nasty. First-term Republican John Faso, who is pretty mum on marijuana, has supported a series of blatant race-baiting ads highlighting his Democratic opponent, Antonio Delgado’s short lived hip-hop career. Faso has accused Delgado of glorifying “drug use” and, while widely decried, his allies say the ads have had an impact.
That was evident on a recent Friday evening at a voter registration event for college students in New Paltz, New York. In his stump speech about shaking up the “status quo,” Delgado brought up the opioid crisis as evidence that Washington’s broken. But in this region that witnessed an 80 percent increase in opioid deaths from 2015-2016, the tall, handsome man refused to acknowledge that marijuana — which is increasingly being found to be an effective way to curb opioid use — could be a solution.
“My focus on the response is making sure that we actually fund drug treatment centers, that we actually fund health facilities and mental health facilities, and that we give these young individuals a chance to recover,” he told Rolling Stone. When pressed on whether marijuana could be a solution, he responded that he did not follow the line of questions. He also added that he only supports medical marijuana.
This apparent fear of attack ads — being labeled a “pro-drug” candidate — is partly why Democratic leaders are being nudged to make marijuana reform part of their agenda. That way, candidates will be better prepared to talk pot politics, even when their opponents try to distort their position and portray them as wanting to loosen restrictions on all drugs.
“Some Democrats are still leery of publicly supporting marijuana policy reform for fear of backlash from Republican opponents, but they shouldn’t be,” says Morgan Fox, media relations director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “Supporting marijuana policy reform pretty much guarantees a boost of several points in the polls for candidates of either party.”
Yet in some red states, marijuana is being used to lure voters to the Democratic side. Six hundred miles southwest of Delgado, in West Virginia’s Third District, Democrat Richard Ojeda’s made marijuana a centerpiece of his shockingly close race deep in Trump country.
The burly, tattooed veteran and state senator successfully ushered medicinal marijuana through his highly conservative legislature. He’s now running for an open seat in the House, and argues anyone who doesn’t connect marijuana to the opioid crisis is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry.
“How about people stop being politicians and start being leaders?” says Ojeda, who now advocates for decriminalization, in part to end mass incarceration. “Because right now that’s what we’ve got: Politicians who want to tell people what they think people want to hear.”
In May, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz used his Democratic challenger Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s support of decriminalization in ads where a narrator says “Beto O’Rourke said we should consider legalizing all narcotics, including heroin.” Even as the ads were running this summer the young Democrat didn’t waver, and he was able to tighten the race.
But in New Jersey — where officials are also gearing up to legalize recreational marijuana —Democratic congressional candidates can’t seem to find a center of the issue.
In the Seventh District, five-term Republican Congressman Leonard Lance supports medicinal marijuana, but he opposes recreational. His Democratic challenger, Tom Malinowski, supports Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which retroactively decriminalizes marijuana while incentivizing states to decrease their prison populations.
“There’s no good rationale for locking up a lot of young people up for marijuana,” says Malinowski, a human rights activist. “And if that’s going to be our judgement going forward then we also need justice looking backward.”
About an hour south on I-95, in the Third District, incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur has been a vocal opponent of recreational marijuana. While MacArthur’s Democratic opponent, Andrew Kim, wants to remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances where it’s currently listed next to heroin, he wants to see more scientific data before Congress acts beyond that.
“When I see stats out there saying that states that allow for medicinal marijuana have 25 percent less opioid related fatalities, that is something that catches my attention and makes me think that this is something that we need to look into and research and do in a responsible way,” Kim told me from a back office in the old bank he’s converted into his headquarters.
Kim is perplexed to learn that Democratic leaders in Washington don’t even want to bring marijuana bills to the floor, especially the ones to merely increase research that have Republican support too.
“That’s absolutely a signal that this is an opportunity for us to be able advance this and be able to figure out the right way to go about doing this,” says Kim, who has called for new Democratic Party leaders. “So many people in our district are disenchanted with politics, frankly on both sides of the aisle, and what they’re asking for is a fresh start.”