Democrats need to stop worrying and get behind legal pot

Blaze it

A donkey.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

There was one bright spot in the 2020 election results that has thus far gotten buried in all the usual Donald Trump madness: legal marijuana. This was on the ballot in four states — Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, and New Jersey — and passed in every one, by large margins. It was closest in conservative South Dakota, and still passed there by over nine points.

And yet much of the Democratic elite, including President-elect Joe Biden, is dragging its feet on endorsing fully legal, regulated weed. This is both bad policy and political malpractice — wedge issues as perfect as this one do not come along very often.

Let's deal with policy first. As anyone with even a passing knowledge of pharmacology knows, marijuana is one of the more anodyne, harmless drugs out there. It is not perfectly safe, and has some side effects. Some people can develop a harmful dependency, as they can with gambling or even exercise. But weed is not even in the same galaxy danger-wise as harder drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol, or tobacco.

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People instinctively resist the comparison to the latter two drugs because its sounds silly, but the science is open and shut. Both alcohol and tobacco are more addictive and vastly more harmful than pot is. Even moderate alcohol use can damage the liver, kidneys, heart, brain, and other organs, and its use causes roughly 95,000 deaths per year. Smoking tobacco drastically raises the risk of numerous types of cancer, as well as secondary problems like emphysema, and causes about 480,000 deaths annually. The argument that marijuana is a gateway drug is also false — again, alcohol or tobacco are much more likely to serve this function.

On the other hand, the illegal drug market provides considerable revenue to murderous drug traffickers. This is much less true than it used to be with weed, thanks to so many states partly or fully legalizing it, but still, there is no reason not to cut off the rest of the revenue (and indeed to do so with all currently prohibited drugs, though that's a subject for another article).

These facts, which have been obvious for all with eyes to see for decades, are why all arguments against legal weed don't withstand a moment's scrutiny. Drug warriors end up resorting to facially absurd arguments, like South Dakota's Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, who cut an ad in which she said, "The fact is, I've never met someone who got smarter for smoking pot." Setting aside alcohol's brain-melting effects, one wonders if motorcycles, guns, or high-fructose corn syrup would survive that particular standard.

That is not to say we should allow the marijuana market to become monopolized by a few big corporations. The interest in any capitalist industry is to maximize profits, and when selling drugs that generally means cultivating a small group of very heavy users to be exploited ruthlessly regardless of the social costs. This is how the big alcohol and tobacco companies (the latter of which are already making a major play into the pot market, by the way) conduct business. In my view, marijuana should be heavily regulated and remain a labor-intensive craft industry, or better still, sold through a state monopoly (or some combination of the two).

But the details of that can be figured out later. By comparison, the politics are quite simple. The debate is already over in the public mind — aside from all the ballot initiatives that have already passed, polling shows 68 percent of Americans support legalization (which is only likely to grow even larger over time).

Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, the Republican Party is either against legal weed or neutral on it. President Trump has rarely mentioned it, but his administration (stacked as it has been with movement conservatives with wide discretion) has cracked down relative to his more lenient predecessor. Republicans did nothing to pass Harris' bill, in part because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, like many Republican senators, is against legalization.

Yet Democrats, too, have remained frustratingly divided on the question. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently endorsed it, while Vice President-elect Kamala Harris actually sponsored a bill to decriminalize at the federal level and allow states to legalize as they wish as a senator, which the House is scheduled to vote on next month. Georgia Senate candidate Jon Ossoff recently came out for legalization, though the other candidate Ralph Warnock only supports decriminalization.

But the Biden campaign did not support legalization, only decriminalization, while many other Democrats have been rather quiet on the issue. I suspect that a lot of elderly Democrats who cut their political teeth in the 1980s and '90s, when the War on Drugs frenzy was at its peak (which is basically the entire leadership, except Harris), have some remnants of that mindset. They are still worried that Ronald Reagan will do a reefer madness on them if they trumpet support for legalization. Others perhaps have not internalized the massive shift in polling even over the last few years.

It is highly likely that marijuana will be legalized sooner or later, given the direction of public opinion. But to take advantage of McConnell's massively unpopular stance, one must point it out, loudly and repeatedly. The fact that Republican control of the Senate is the single obstacle behind making marijuana something one can obtain legally in every state would be a strong argument for both the upcoming Georgia special elections (where a poll from two years ago found 55 percent support) and in the 2022 midterms. Democrats just need to shake off their drug warrior cobwebs.

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