Democrats running in state primaries across the country have been promoting legal marijuana as a painless way to raise money while avoiding tax increases.
In Illinois, the candidates vying to be the party’s gubernatorial nominee are so invested in the issue they have been attacking one another for failing to embrace it with enough vigor.
Businessman J.B. Pritzker, who leads in polls ahead of Tuesday’s primary, has been flooding Facebook with ads touting his intention to legalize marijuana, both to address disparities in the criminal-justice system and to raise state revenue by taxing it.
The co-founder of the Pritzker Group, who has spent $63 million of his own money in his run for office according to campaign finance reports, also has criticized his opponent, Chris Kennedy, a developer and son of Robert F. Kennedy, for initially backing decriminalization rather than outright legalization.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Kennedy said he is fundamentally pro-legalization and has recently changed his campaign website to reflect that.
A third Democratic candidate, state Sen. Daniel Biss, has pointed to his legislative record as proof that he has sought to legalize pot.
“I’ve been for legalization for a long time,” Mr. Biss said. “Even when I was under a lot of political pressure to vote against it.”
For decades, marijuana was a political third rail that Democratic candidates avoided for fear of being labeled soft on crime. Recently, however, New Jersey and Virginia elected governors who have championed the cause. At least three Democrats in the Connecticut governor’s race are pro-marijuana. Legalization is a key issue in the Michigan attorney general’s race, where all the Democratic candidates have backed it, despite initial ambivalence from some.
National support for legalization is at 64%, a record high and up from 34% in 2002, according to a Gallup survey from October 2017. Among Democrats, support is at 72%, and at 67% among independents. Just 51% of Republicans back legalization, according to Gallup.
When Colorado and Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, the measures passed with about 55% of the vote in both states.
The growing support at state level could bring clashes with the federal government. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in January that he would roll back Obama-era policies that allowed states to go their own way. Many Republican leaders, such as Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and his primary opponent, state Rep. Jeanne Ives, oppose legalization.
In Illinois, 66% of voters favor fully legalizing marijuana for recreational use and taxing it like alcohol, according to a March 2017 poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at the Southern Illinois University. Support is highest in Chicago, but even a majority of downstate voters from largely Republican districts back legalization.
To many, the argument regarding legalization comes down to the budget, especially looking at the track records of the states that have legalized it. Washington reported $203 million in taxes from marijuana last year. Colorado collected $247 million in 2017 and revenue was up in the first two months of 2018.
Among the fears when states legalized pot was that stoned workers would get hurt on the job, but workers-compensation claims have fallen in Colorado since marijuana was legalized, according to the state.
Illinois, which has the lowest credit rating among U.S. states, owes nearly $9 billion in overdue bills and faces a pension deficit of $250 billion. Legalization supporters estimate the state, with a population roughly equal to Washington’s and Colorado’s combined, would generate about $350 million a year in tax revenue.
Legalization advocates also say the change would improve fairness in the criminal-justice system and save money by ending the high incarceration rates for marijuana offenses.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which advocates a middle road between incarceration and legalization, said public support for decriminalization is actually much stronger than for legalization, when opinion polls ask questions about each.
“The idea that support for marijuana is becoming mainstream is really over exaggerated,” Mr. Sabet said.
Marijuana use and drug-related arrests have increased among young people in Colorado, he said. Shops selling pot are also disproportionately popping up in poor communities, which is hurting those neighborhoods, Mr. Sabet said.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Illinois have acknowledged the arguments but say the train has already left the station. “I don’t think we need to study this anymore,” Mr. Pritzker said. “I’ve seen a lot of voters in favor of it.”