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Democrats Need to Campaign on Legalizing Marijuana

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The Democrats are facing one of the toughest Senate maps in history. They have to defend 10 seats in states that Trump won while Republicans are defending just two seats in states Hillary Clinton won. The statistical models show a wide range of possible outcomes in 2018, from Democrats taking back the Senate (in the ball park of a 30 percent probability) to Republicans gaining seats.

While the numbers are what they are, one thing they are not is immutable. Democrats have control over their fate. While Trump’s approval rating is a critical factor and Democrats should be doing what they can to make it worse, their own approval matters as well. The conventional wisdom is that midterms are a referendum on the party in the White House and that is certainly true, but American voters aren’t static. They don’t just blindly vote against things; they vote for things as well.

We’re getting close to midterms, and numbers aren’t going to shift dramatically between now and November. Averages of the generic ballot have consistently averaged roughly Democrats +7 and vote swing toward Dems in special elections averages Democrat +13. It’s unlikely that these numbers will decrease or increase more than a couple of points if history serves as an accurate guide. That’s not to say that a couple points don’t matter, however. Quite the opposite. If the generic ballot and special elections jump to Democrat +8 and +14 respectively, the odds that the Democrats take back the House and Senate increase orders of magnitude.

Democrats have pretty much staked their position on the major policy issues, even if they could be bolder in certain areas. They’re for a large infrastructure investment, transitioning to a clean energy economy, and some form of universal healthcare.

What they haven’t declared their position on is the legalization of marijuana.

No notable Democrat has come forth and said they support legalizing recreational marijuana at the federal level. Most balk when pressed on the issue, giving vague statements about decriminalization and not treating marijuana as a schedule 1 drug. There’s nothing wrong with this position, it’s progressive and important. A legal regime in which marijuana was decriminalized nationwide would be a significant improvement to the one we have today.

That said, decriminalization doesn’t go far enough. The stars are now aligned for legalization. Three recent trends prove that to be the case.

First, research over the last decade has shown us that marijuana is not a danger to public health. Marijuana doesn’t harm the lungs of the smoker or lead to long term memory loss as propaganda claimed in the past. In fact, science has found the marijuana has a dearth of positive health benefits. This includes pain relief, a much needed alternative to opiate drugs which are addictive and true gateways to heroin and fentanyl. Its health benefits also include a reduction in inflammation and improved sleep. For people with seizures, glaucoma, and cancer, marijuana can mitigate the worst effects and keep people’s life worth living.

Second, marijuana is being legalized in blue states around the country and the economic benefits have outpaced even optimistic expectations. States like Oregon and Washington are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue into their general fund, a huge windfall that can be spent on things like infrastructure and healthcare. In its very first year of legalization, California is expected to top $1 billion in revenue, and that number will continue to grow in the future. Marijuana is an extremely lucrative business.

Third, polling shows marijuana legalization to be extremely popular and thus Democrats would score a political win from supporting it. This would activate a base of voters, notably those under 35, to show up to the polls which could push the Democrats over the finish line in the 2018 midterms and indeed the 2020 presidential election. A Quinnipiac poll in April of this year showed legalization polling at 63 percent approval. Further, only 33 percent of the country is opposed to legalization.

These three factors, health, economics, and popular support, make the issue an obvious triumph for Democrats. The 2018 and 2020 elections will be about whether or not Democrats can activate their base. Trump’s voters have shown they’re going to stick with him no matter how outrageously he behaves. June polls have the President’s approval at 90 percent among Republican voters, the highest it has been since he took office.

Therefore, marijuana serves as the perfect issue in a moment when Democrats can’t afford to lose any ground in Congress and in fact need to gain seats. 75 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Independents support legalization. That’s the coalition Democrats need to activate in order to win. Further, 41 percent of Republican voters are in favor of legalization. Thus if any of the 10 percent of Republicans who don’t support Donald Trump are planning to vote for the opposing party, this issue is more likely to cement their decision than to turn them away. In other words, marijuana activates Democrats and Independents while pacifying Republicans. Very few voters are going to specifically vote against legalization.

The two groups that legalization would have the biggest impact on are African Americans and young people, arguably the two groups Democrats are striving to turn out most.

Black communities have been torn apart by the legal regime enforcing marijuana laws. Numbers show blacks are disproportionately imprisoned as well as given longer sentences for marijuana possession than their white peers, despite using marijuana at nearly identical rates. Legalization would help to flatten this disparity and would be the first step to getting African Americans out of prisons for nonviolent marijuana charges.

For young people, marijuana is seen as a tool to enhance the human experience rather than an illicit substance. Nearly half of people under the age of 35 report using marijuana on a regular basis. In this way it’s being used as a drug like caffeine or alcohol which are viewed as normal and nondestructive to a person’s life if used in moderation.

The strategy for Democrats is to create the biggest contrast to Donald Trump, the most unpopular President in the history of modern polling, as they possibly can. What better way to contrast the President than to support the legalization of marijuana?

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