It’s no secret that the idea of legal cannabis is popular in America. Even Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is now in favor of “decriminalizing” the green stuff—a step short of outright legalization—while several progressive Democrats who will presumably run for president in 2020 are staking out more aggressive pro-weed positions. Poll after poll shows that the public at large wants legal pot, yet the country’s leaders are dragging their feet: VICE’s recent survey of senators’ positions on weed showed that very few of them thought (or were willing to declare) that weed should be legal, full stop.
But federal policy on legal pot, for now at least, is not where the action really is. It’s on the state level that battles are being fought (and very often won) by legalization advocates, meaning the country’s governors have a huge amount of power. A supportive state-level chief exec, like New Jersey’s Phil Murphy, can push to expand existing marijuana programs. An anti-weed governor, on the other hand, can block the will of his state’s own voters, which is exactly what Maine’s Paul LePage has been doing. Last year, he vetoed a bill to establish a recreational marijuana market, even though his state’s voters had said in 2016 they wanted to create one, and now he’s threatening to veto another recreational marijuana bill passed by lawmakers. (The legislature may be able to override his veto this time.)
In the new gubernatorial report card released Tuesday by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), LePage got a D- while Murphy was one of two governors to score an A. The report card shows some clear trends: Democrats tend to be more pot-friendly than Republicans, only two governors support the legalization of weed for recreational as well as medicinal purposes, and very broadly, governors are much more anti-cannabis than their constituents.
In advance of the report’s release, I spoke to NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri about whether Republicans were, in their own way, becoming more pro-weed—and how activists could push governors into being on the right side of history.
VICE: Politicians have obviously long been way behind the public when it comes to support for marijuana. Is that trend shifting at all?
Erik Altieri: It is beginning to shift. Politicians are traditionally a lagging indicator of where public opinion is; they’re very cautious by nature and often have to be pulled along kicking and screaming to where the will of the populace is. But you do see evolution happen, particularly when state’s voters speak out on an issue or they hear enough from their constituents in support of it. I think a good example of that is Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. Beginning and through the campaign process when Colorado legalized marijuana, he was very skeptical and negative on the issue. He didn’t, in particular, do a very good job in defending Colorado’s legalization laws in the media when it was being implemented. But several years later, after seeing that not only was it working but public support for legalization among Colorado voters had increased, he’s done a very good job, particularly in the past year, of being a vocal defender and an articulate spokesman for why regulation is far better than prohibition.
It’s going to take a while, especially in the conservative states where they’re not feeling as much pressure to move forward—governors often don’t begin to shift until there’s political necessity. But that progress is happening.
If you’re trying to work to loosen marijuana laws in your state, is it easier to replace an anti-weed governor or pass weed ordinances and hope the governor comes around?
I think that it’s still very much a case-by-case basis. New Jersey is a good example of the flaws of approving pro-reform legislation under a prohibitionist governor. Under Chris Christie, a medical marijuana bill was signed into law and put into effect. And while on paper things began to change, he did everything in his authority to stymie that growth, to make it as limited and as dysfunctional as he possibly could, and then refused to fix any of the problems or expand the program in any meaningful way. In reaction to that, Phil Murphy, the current governor, campaigned very heavily on marijuana legalization, made it a central point of his campaign—he certainly got a not-insignificant amount of votes for taking that position—and within the first hundred days of being in office, he expanded the medical program greatly, and he’s advocating for the state legislature to move this year on full legalization.
So it depends on the situation you’re in. I think Hickenlooper was an opponent but a cautious one, and so his opposition always seemed a bit soft to me. In that kind of situation, you can work with them and try to convince them to come over to your side. If you’re facing someone like a Chris Christie, you can show him all the facts and figures you want—he’s entrenched in his position and he’s going to fight you tooth and nail.
Why are Republicans (still) so much worse on weed than Democrats?
It is true, by and large, Democrats are better on this issue than Republicans. I think some of that is still the historic entrenchment of Republicans in the “just say no” era as being militantly anti-drugs of any kind. A lot of these governors are folks who served in the state legislature through the 80s and 90s, when it was the party line to be absolutely opposed to this.
But you’re beginning to see some start to realize how this fits into their mindset of state’s rights. For instance, someone who most people would consider a conservative but who has been friendly to reform, Rick Snyder in Michigan, supported the medical program, signed bills to expand it, and has generally been helpful. We’ve seen more broadly with the party in recent weeks, between John Boehner [joining the board of a cannabis company], and President Trump cutting a deal with [Colorado Senator Cory] Gardner, and Gardner’s general defense of his state’s laws, they are beginning to come around as well. If Democrats don’t really take this issue into their platform and tackle it head-on, they do risk in the long term losing this to state’s rights conservatives.
In the future, as states continue to legalize marijuana, what other policies are you looking for governors to support?
Once marijuana is legal, I think one of the biggest issues that we could certainly use assistance from state governors on is the issue of expungement of past criminal convictions. In most of the places where marijuana has been legalized, individuals are still suffering the consequences of previous arrests and charges for marijuana possession in amounts that are currently legal. Kate Brown [in Oregon] signed a bill into law that works to expunge previous convictions that people have on their record. In California, we haven’t seen it really pushed on the state level as heavily, but local DAs are working on it, and I think that’s an area where we do really need leadership.