Make Marijuana A 2020 Litmus Test

Photo Credit: Camille Fine

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., joined Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., on Wednesday in sponsoring a bill that would legalize marijuana at the federal level and provide states with funds to liberalize their own drug laws. That duo joining together on this particular issue caused the Spidey sense of many politicos to tingle, since they are both regarded as potential 2020 presidential candidates on the Democratic side of the aisle.

On the merits, Gillibrand and Booker are in the right here. The senseless perpetuation of America’s war on drugs has wrecked lives, cost tons of money and done precisely nothing to reduce the use or availability of the very substances at which it is aimed. But on the politics, too, their move makes sense. Marijuana legalization is getting ever more popular, with Gallup finding that nearly two-thirds of Americans now support it, up from less than half just a decade ago.

That Gillibrand and Booker took this step, the same week that they both announced they also weren’t going to be taking any more corporate PAC money, has caused folks in the conservative blogosphere to ask whether legalization is going to be a litmus test on the left in the next presidential contest. I vote yes.

That this discussion is happening at all is, in many ways, a legacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I-Vt., unexpectedly vigorous challenge for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. On issues from single-payer health care to student debt to, yes, drug legalization, Sanders showed that tacking in a progressive direction isn’t the inevitable political liability many in Washington treat it as, but can actually pay big dividends. Young people – those dreaded millennials who are stuck cleaning up the messes left by prior generations while getting mocked for participation trophies and laziness – led the curve both in supporting more liberal drug laws and supporting Sanders.

It’s patently ridiculous that the government treats a substance that is no more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco as if it’s Kryptonite to our collective Superman. The number of people who spend time in jail or are carrying around criminal records because of minor marijuana offenses is positively mind-numbing. America arrests hundreds of thousands of people every year just for possessing a plant that can be smoked; in 2016, more people were arrested for marijuana possession than for all of the crimes the FBI classifies as violent, combined.

In a world of finite resources, it’s hard to come up with anything that is more wasteful or unfair. “Millions of Americans’ lives have been devastated because of our broken marijuana policies, especially in communities of color and low-income communities,” said Gillibrand in a statement. “Just one minor possession conviction could take away a lifetime of opportunities for jobs, education, and housing, tear families apart, and make people more vulnerable to serving time in jail or prison down the road.”

And it’s not like we’re lacking in evidence that there’s a better way. Indeed, several states have already gone down the legalization road, and the predictions of the doomsayers who said communities would come apart at the seams from a little pot didn’t come to pass.

So this is a rare opportunity wherein the right policy lines up with good politics. And for Democrats, the politics can be darn good: Not only is legalization the favored position of a healthy majority, but President Donald Trump has managed to blunder his way into taking the other side of the debate.

It’s not that Trump meant to do this, mind you. During the campaign, he was in favor of allowing states that had legalized pot to keep it that way (for whatever his various policy pronouncements are worth at any given moment). But then Trump went and nominated Jeff Sessions, an unrepentant drug war soldier, to be attorney general.

Sessions’ appointment was obviously about personal loyalty to Trump and the Alabamian’s awful immigration record, but by allowing those factors to take precedence, Trump got himself a Department of Justice that is threatening to crack down on the places that have chosen to go the legalization route. Sessions is not quiet about the fact that he thinks “Just Say No” should still be on billboards and t-shirts across the country. So Trump’s ripe for the picking on this issue.

Some Democrats even believe that being pro-legalization can help them in more conservative corners of the country where they usually don’t have much of a chance. It’s certainly worth taking that theory out for a whirl, since those places chose a reality television actor over seeing a Democrat in office.

Given the state of this particular debate – and much more importantly, the merits of the case – there’s no good reason Democrats should turn to anyone in 2020 who isn’t saying that enough is enough with the pointless war on drugs. It’s rare that in public policy one can both be right and popular, but legalizing marijuana is that gem. It’s high time at least one party make it clear.