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Pot Politics of the Future

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With the major political conventions over, the focus of U.S. politics shifts to the November presidential election and the control of Congress and various state governments. The focus of pot politics will remain on state-level ballot initiatives, with a modest amount of effort directed at reminding candidates for state and federal office that marijuana legalization is widely supported with powerful inertia.

The momentum of state-level cannabis reform makes it less important where presidential candidates stand on the issue. Party platforms make it clear that Democrats are beginning the process of embracing marijuana legalization, while Republicans continue to resist the inevitable. Certainly, for this and many other reasons, it is better for legalization if the Democrats win the presidential election than if the Republicans do. And for this reason alone, it would be tragic if marijuana voters gravitate toward Libertarian and Green Party candidates with better positions on marijuana issues but no chance of winning the election.

Traditionally, the benefit of voting for so-called third parties is to demonstrate support for various issues being ignored or unappreciated by the two major parties—in short, votes for alternative candidates are intended to get the attention of one or both of the major parties.

When it comes to marijuana legalization, that’s already been accomplished. After making sure as many pro-legalization ballot initiatives prevail in the November election, the major objective for legalization advocates is to make sure the next president’s administration is not hostile to the ongoing expansion of legalization.

This is not purely a matter of where the candidates stand, but rather an issue of where the parties stand and the type of political appointments each party is likely to make. It is unlikely that Republican appointees as U.S. attorneys will be sympathetic to state-level marijuana legalization, or that a Republican Attorney General will be inclined to restrain Republican appointees in the DEA and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Republican candidate for president is already pushing for the arrest of million and millions of undocumented immigrants, which will require the largest police force in American history. Regardless of rhetorical support for states’ rights, this does not bode well for drug policy reform—even more so given the Republican nominee’s frequent abandonment of conservative values in favor of strength, law and order.

The Democrats, on the other hand, have embraced marijuana law reform in their platform, recognize the political importance of many progressive issues and are thoroughly committed to criminal justice reform (especially with respect to its impact on African-Americans and other minorities). Many Democrats need to be further educated about marijuana and the benefits of cannabis legalization. This election provides a valuable opportunity for that to happen.

It’s all going very well when it comes to legalizing marijuana in the United States. But it would screw things up immensely for pro-legalization voters to help elect Donald Trump by voting for third-party candidates, no matter how good their positions are on marijuana issues.

The inertia of state-level reform is a powerful force and may be hard for the next presidential administration to stop. Slowing it down is another matter, as is leading a counter-attack. Nonetheless, this is a good time to think past the upcoming election and consider pot politics of the future.

Here are the big issues that will define pot politics in the future.

First, can legalization become a national policy? This issue has two components. One of them is the fight over advancing legalization through rescheduling marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) versus removing it and advancing legalization through new legislation similar to the way alcohol and tobacco are regulated. Rescheduling would not be progress, but instead an attempt to re-establish the control of the DEA over cannabis, the control state-level reform has taken away from the agency. The other component of national legalization is preventing individual states from maintaining prohibition as a state-level policy.

National politicians will continue to resist legalization; they will try to dodge this issue for as long as they can. Rescheduling is one cop-out, states’ rights is actually another. No adult in this country should face criminal sanctions for marijuana use, and every adult should have access to marijuana from a legal vendor. Neither rescheduling nor a states’ rights approach achieves those objectives.

Second, given legalization on a national level, the next big issue for pot politics concerns protectionism versus free trade. Will the United States allow the importation and sale of foreign-grown marijuana, grown perhaps with cheaper labor and other conditions that allow foreign producers to undercut the price of American-grown cannabis? This will become a very complicated issue. 

Free trade and an open market will provide tremendous benefits for marijuana consumers, especially with respect to the right to grow cannabis for personal use and to have easy access to the cannabis market to sell locally produced cannabis. Furthermore, industrially grown domestic cannabis, relying on indoor cultivation, will consume tremendous amounts of energy and could eventually raise energy conservation issues that could justify pro-sun grown cannabis trade policies, including opening up the U.S. market to foreign outdoor producers.  There is a lot more to this potential issue, and it will involve the same concerns of current debate over free trade, fair trade and protectionism. This is an issue that affects consumers, industry profits and the public interest in varied and complex ways.

Third, and perhaps even more pressing to the current political focus, is the issue of keeping marijuana away from children in a legal market where a variety of marijuana products are widely available. This issue concerns such matters as product specifications, packaging, age restrictions, public health campaigns and parental responsibilities.

All three of these issues loom large on the horizon of pot politics, and each will create challenges for the coalition now supporting marijuana’s legalization. These issues will produce realignments in the political landscape and give rise to a new generation of advocacy groups. The legalization of marijuana will cause profound changes in the politics of pot. Reform advocates and supporters must keep focused on the business at hand, but it is not too soon to begin to think about the future.

Jon Gettman is the Cannabis Policy Director for High Times. Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy, teaching undergraduate criminal justice and graduate level management courses. A long-time contributor to High Times, his research and analytical work has been used by NORML, Marijuana Policy Project, American’s for Safe Access, the Drug Policy Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations. Jon’s research contributions to the topic of marijuana law reform have included findings on the economic value of domestic marijuana cultivation, attempts to have marijuana rescheduled under federal law and racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates. Serving as NORML’s National Director in the late 1980s, he was instrumental in creating NORML’s activist program.

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