“We don’t need to give him another ounce of our brain-space,” Dan Canon told the crowd of 40 people, hitting the TV mute as President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech began. “We don’t care what he says.” The speech had been the advertised reason for the gathering at the Crazy Horse bar in downtown Bloomington, but in truth the mix of college students and older locals couldn’t even be bothered to hate watch Trump. They had come to hear Canon, a civil rights attorney running for Congress in Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, talk about his campaign to unseat one-term incumbent Trey Hollingsworth.
Students seem drawn to Canon in part because he was one of the plaintiff attorneys in the lawsuit that became Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage. They like his stances on raising the federal minimum wage and providing Medicare for all. But it’s his full-throated support for legalizing medical marijuana at the federal level that has distinguished him in the eyes of many young voters, who consider it a threshold for taking any politician seriously.
“I think anytime you have an issue with such a high degree of bipartisan support in 2018, you have to pay attention to it,” Canon told POLITICO Magazine, regarding marijuana. “And it’s appealing because it touches on so many other things: creates a new industry with jobs, good for agriculture, alleviates pressures placed on the criminal justice system, reduces overdose deaths, is a natural pain reliever, can raise massive tax revenue, et cetera.”
Not so long ago—like maybe last cycle—a Democratic challenger in a state this conservative wouldn’t have been caught dead making an unqualified endorsement of a drug federal authorities still consider as dangerous as heroin by categorizing it as Schedule 1. But attitudes about marijuana, not to mention state laws, have changed so quickly and so broadly across the country that Democrats even in deeply red states like Indiana not only don’t fear talking about the issue, they think it might be a key in 2018 to toppling Republican incumbents. The numbers, they say, are on their side, not the side of the politicians who either duck the subject or endorse Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ apparent desire to return federal marijuana policy to the “Just Say No” days of the Reagan administration.
In a 2016 poll of Indiana residents, approval for medical marijuana was at 73 percent. In a state struggling, like so many others, with a massive opioid crisis, there’s been no sign that support for legalizing marijuana has waned. A 2012 survey from the Bowen Center of Public Affairs showed that 78 percent of Hoosiers supported taxing marijuana like alcohol and cigarettes, far above the 55 percent who supported then-Governor Mike Pence—a sign that support for marijuana law reform in Indiana is no statistical blip. In fact, according to Canon, it has only gotten stronger, not just in blue bubbles like Bloomington but in rural and suburban communities, too. That’s why, in December, Canon released a web video ad declaring his stance clearly, “Here’s one simple solution that’s long overdue: We need to legalize medical marijuana nationwide.” He even got some international press out of it.
Subsequently, his chief primary opponent, law school professor Liz Watson, instead of criticizing Canon’s position, posted a detailed pro-medical marijuana position on her website to eliminate any daylight between her and Canon on this issue. “In Southern Indiana, we are battling a raging opioid epidemic. The last thing we need is for the federal government to punish people for turning to non-addictive alternatives to opioids,” she told POLITICO Magazine. “We also do not need the federal government restricting study into the medical uses of marijuana. Federal law currently categorizes marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic, along with heroin, while oxycodone is Schedule 2. That makes no sense.” Watson’s stance nearly guarantees that no matter who survives the primary to face Republican Hollingsworth in the general, the Democrat in the race will be on the record as in favor of medical marijuana.
The candidates of Indiana’s 9th are not alone in their desire to use marijuana as a rallying flag. House races in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, plus Senate races in Texas and Nevada, all feature Democratic candidates who have taken strong stands in favor of changing the federal marijuana laws, and are running against Republican incumbents who have not.
“There’s nationwide support for recreational marijuana, and support for medical marijuana is even higher than that,” Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, told POLITICO Magazine. According to Cross, there’s not much difference in the support for marijuana legalization in rural Southern states than in the Western blue states more commonly associated with marijuana. “For some voters, marijuana could be a defining issue. We just don’t know how many that’s going to be yet.”
No one thinks marijuana will win these elections by itself. The Democratic challengers likely will need all the lift they can get from any “blue wave” fed by resistance to Trump, and the candidates will need every dollar they can raise to overcome the incumbents’ built-in advantage. Hollingsworth, for example, who has a personal net worth of at least $58.5 million, loaned himself $3 million for his successful 2016 campaign while his father piled on another $1.5 million through a super PAC. In all of 2017, Canon and Watson combined didn’t even reach $1 million in fundraising.
But Canon, for one, sees a vulnerability in Hollingsworth’s silence. Hollingsworth has made no public statements on marijuana, according to Vote Smart. And thanks to House leadership, Hollingsworth has not been forced to take a vote on marijuana, because the Rules Committee has denied marijuana-related votes since 2016. At the Crazy Horse in Bloomington, with Trump’s State of the Union on mute on the TV behind him, Canon predicted that Hollingsworth would continue to run from the marijuana issue as long as he can.
“They think they can hammer that ‘law and order’ message all day long,” Canon told POLITICO Magazine, referring to the likes of Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, and the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, who all oppose legalization. “The majority of Republicans running throughout the country are out of touch with the people in their districts [on the marijuana issue].”
It won’t be known for some months yet whether legalization has the power to take out sitting Republicans, but there’s no question that it is potent enough to change the complexion of primary races, at least in districts that have large college populations.
Take a look at what’s happening across the Ohio River from the Indiana 9th, in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district, which includes both the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University. The Democratic field to unseat the three-term Republican incumbent Andy Barr has developed into an interesting portrait of the current Democratic Party coalition: a black state senator, a female veteran, and a gay mayor. State Senator Reggie Thomas, who represents a portion of Lexington in the Kentucky Senate, was first in the race to come out in favor of medical marijuana. In a web video he states, “The evidence is clear. Medical marijuana helps those with chronic pain and other medical conditions.” In the same 60-second video, Thomas announced he was signing on as a co-sponsor of a medical marijuana bill in the state Senate. Asked by POLITICO Magazine if there was a campaign strategy associated with his advocacy of medical marijuana in order to differentiate himself from his primary opponents, Thomas wouldn’t take the bait, saying only that, “it’s just the right thing to do.”
Two days after Thomas posted that video, one of his primary opponents, Amy McGrath, responded on Twitter: “Many #veterans suffering from #ChronicPain and #PTSD report improved healthcare outcomes from #MedicalCannabis. I’m proud to stand with the @americanlegion in advocating for more research.” McGrath is a retired U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot. She made a splash in August with the release of a campaign ad featuring the FA-18’s that she used to fly. And although McGrath’s position sounds more conservative than the position taken by Reggie Thomas since McGrath is only advocating for “research” not full legalization, the American Legion’s position for expanding research requires the removal of marijuana from Schedule I, which prevents such research.
That puts Reggie Thomas, Amy McGrath, and the American Legion closer in line with the Kentucky public than Barr, who has voted against medical marijuana at least four times since 2013, earning him a D grade from NORML. Barr came to Congress as part of the Tea Party in 2012, yet his fellow Tea Party Republicans from Kentucky, Rep. Thomas Massie and Sen. Rand Paul, have both been considerably more pro-marijuana than Barr. A 2017 poll showed that 68 percent of Kentuckians favor medical marijuana, and yet Barr consistently votes against it.
Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, is the third Democrat vying for the opportunity to unseat Barr. He made national news last year with his decision to remove Confederate monuments from downtown Lexington, but he had not taken a position on legalizing marijuana until he was asked by POLITICO Magazine. Then on Saturday, Gray closed the gap between himself and his primary opponents.
“I’m for Congress either legalizing medical marijuana across the country or getting out of the way and letting states decide whether to regulate and tax marijuana. That means removing it as a Schedule I drug,” Gray told POLITICO. “I support state-level legislation, but until Congress acts these state laws may not be enough.”
If Barr’s opposition to medical marijuana becomes a mainstream issue in November, that could be trouble for him in Kentucky’s 6th, which skews younger and more diverse than most Kentucky districts. Barr did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
There are few places where marijuana politics are more exciting than in West Virginia, thanks to state senator (and retired U.S. Army major) Richard Ojeda, who is currently a candidate for Congress in West Virginia’s 3rd with a position on medical marijuana that has given him strong statewide name recognition.
“Anyone with half a brain should know that marijuana should never be Schedule I,” Ojeda told POLITICO Magazine over the phone, sounding more like Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey than his own state’s Democratic senator, Joe Manchin.
Medical marijuana is as popular in West Virginia as Donald Trump. Nearly 68 percent of West Virginians voted for Trump in 2016, but after a year in office, the average of his 2017 approval rating according to the Gallup tracking poll has slid to 61 percent. Conversely, West Virginia’s acceptance of medical marijuana has risen from 61 percent in early 2017 to 67 percent today, according to an Orion Strategies poll released last month.
Not merely an advocate for medical marijuana, Ojeda (pronounced oh-JEH-dah) criticizes the federal law that requires mandatory prison sentences for criminal marijuana cultivation: “One to five years? That’s garbage,” he told me. Instead, Ojeda, 47, believes that outlaw marijuana growers shouldn’t go to prison at all. He thinks it should be a misdemeanor for a first offense, and that the harshest sentence for a repeat offender should be home confinement. Those positions were once far outside the Democratic Party mainstream, but it’s difficult for Ojeda’s opponents to characterize him as a liberal who is soft on crime when he served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2016, Ojeda ran for a West Virginia state Senate seat against an incumbent Democrat and won the primary by 2,000 votes. In his opening act as a freshman legislator, Ojeda sponsored a medical marijuana bill and quarterbacked it through both chambers, making West Virginia the 29th state to legalize it. This was a stunning turn of events, even for marijuana advocacy groups, who had spent no money to support Ojeda’s effort.
“There wasn’t a single penny spent, and we won,” Ojeda told POLITICO Magazine. “We did it because I got up and started speaking about it. And then the phone lines [in the legislature] lit up because the people of West Virginia know.”
Ojeda continues to make marijuana a legislative priority, pushing a new medical marijuana bill through the state legislature “to fix the damage they done to my original bill.” (His robust medical marijuana bill was watered down by House leadership last year before it passed.) Once he gets through the legislative session, Ojeda is on the ballot for Congress in the West Virginia 3rd district. Ojeda lost the primary for this seat in 2014, but the dynamics of the 3rd district have changed considerably. Leading up to 2018, the seat was considered safe for the incumbent Republican, Evan Jenkins, who has held it since 2014. But when Jenkins tossed his hat into the Senate race to challenge Joe Manchin, the 3rd instantly became a wide-open race. Seven Republicans have filed to run, along with four Democrats, including Ojeda. One of Ojeda’s primary opponents, State Delegate Shirley Love, voted in favor of Ojeda’s medical marijuana bill, as did two of his potential Republican opponents, Delegates Carol Miller and Rupert Phillips. One of the Republicans in the race, Delegate Marty Gearhouse, voted no.
In the neighboring 1st district of West Virginia, two Democrats campaigning to challenge Republican incumbent David McKinley, who won reelection in 2016 with 69 percent of the vote, are advocating for medical marijuana to distinguish themselves from McKinley. McKinley has voted against medical marijuana in Congress at least four times since taking office in 2011, earning him a D grade from NORML. As medical marijuana has emerged as a potential “exit drug” from the opioid crisis, which West Virginia continues to be ground zero for, incumbent Republicans in West Virginia can hardly continue to vote against medical marijuana in Congress without being held accountable, especially in a district like West Virginia’s 1st, which includes Morgantown and West Virginia University—a red-state college-town district similar to Indiana’s 9th and Kentucky’s 6th.
One of McKinley’s Democratic challengers is Ralph Baxter, former CEO of the global law firm, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Baxter relocated Orrick’s global operations center to Wheeling, West Virginia, where it has created at least 350 jobs. At a recent town hall focused on the opioid crisis, Baxter said: “We’ve already made a step to medical marijuana in West Virginia,” referring to Richard Ojeda’s success in the state legislature. “Other states have demonstrated that this can have a very positive effect—a positive effect that outweighs any of the things we worry about.”
Another of McKinley’s Democratic challengers is Kendra Fershee, a law professor at the University of West Virginia, who is as pro-marijuana as Ralph Baxter, maybe more so. In an email to POLITICO Magazine, Fershee criticized the Democrats’ response to Trump’s State of the Union, specifically Joe Kennedy, for failing to advocate for medical marijuana as a means to reject the politics of fear: “One clear example of current leadership’s unwillingness to reject unfounded fear is our current marijuana policy at the federal level. We need the federal government to stop demonizing this safe alternative to opioids and get out of West Virginia’s way so that it can confidently implement its medical marijuana law… Marijuana isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot less dangerous than opioids for managing pain.”
These red-state Democrats have found strong footing on a position to the left of their party’s leadership in Washington, D.C., and it seems to be working for them. None of them seem shaken by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent announcement he would end the Obama administration’s hands-off approach to prosecuting marijuana crimes in states that had legalized it.
Ojeda told POLITICO Magazine: “I think we are on the verge of eventually voting in favor of marijuana [at the national level].”