Yes, everyone’s caught up in the question of who will win the presidential election next week. Yes, everyone wants to know whether the Democrats will seize control of the US Senate. But those are “horse race” questions, and none of the likely outcomes are, in themselves, likely to result in long-term change from business as usual. The campaigns are full of sound and fury, but they signify not much more than mild policy tweaks.
If you’re looking for significant and lasting change, look further down your ballot. Especially if you live in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota, or Mississippi. Voters in those first four states will decide whether to legalize recreational use of marijuana; in the fifth, whether to allow medicinal use.
Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris has pledged that a Joe Biden administration would work to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.
Given the Biden/Harris record as drug warriors and mass incarcerators, I’m not sure I find that promise believable, but the tide is definitely turning on cannabis. In fact, I’m surprised the first Trump administration never made a move on the issue. But these ballot issues could make the difference nationwide, not just just in those five states.
Marijuana wasn’t criminalized because it’s harmful. Marijuana was criminalized so that federal agents like Harry Anslinger wouldn’t lose their jobs when alcohol prohibition ended, and so that William Randolph Hearst’s wood-pulp paper mills wouldn’t have to compete with cheaper hemp paper.
Marijuana hasn’t remained illegal at the federal level because it’s harmful. It’s remained illegal at the federal level because keeping it illegal directs billions of dollars into government bureaucracies with thousands of employees. Those bureaucracies and those employees constitute a special interest lobby — historically a very effective one — within the government itself.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once admonished a group of petitioners: “OK, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and bring pressure on me.”
So far, 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and 11 states and DC have legalized recreational use, in direct nullification of federal law. That’s pressure.
Four more states in the latter category and one more in the medical category, with more than 2/3 of Americans supporting full legalization, would be even more pressure.
Maybe even enough pressure to finally counter the self-interested lobbying of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as well as “non-profit” hangers-on whose (often taxpayer-funded) budgets depend on scaring us all with tall tales about marijuana.
Sooner or later, Congress and the White House will cave and end the war on marijuana. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Mississippi can make it sooner rather than later. And hopefully they will.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.