WASHINGTON -- Congressional candidates nationwide are emphasizing their support for marijuana legalization this campaign season, and if recent House primaries are any indication, that strategy is meeting with impressive results.
El Paso city councilman and marijuana legalization supporter Beto O'Rourke ousted eight-term incumbent House Rep. Silvestre Reyes in a Texas Democratic primary on Tuesday, in part as the fallout to a drug policy controversy with roots that go back years. Earlier this month Ellen Rosenblum won the Oregon attorney general's office on a pledge to make enforcement of marijuana laws a low priority.
In the race to replace Rep. Edolphus Towns in New York, frontrunning candidate Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries has spearheaded efforts in the state legislature to reform marijuana enforcement policies. Sean Bielat, a Republican running to replace retiring Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, found a rare piece of common ground with Frank on drug policy when Bielat ran against him in 2010.
Of course, drug policy reformers aren't all on a winning streak: In Texas, Sheriff Richard Mack, who supports legalization, received just 17 percent of the vote in the Republican primary race against longtime incumbent and drug war supporter Rep. Lamar Smith. But drug policy advocates are already hailing the recent election results as evidence of the political viability of legalization for the drug.
"O'Rourke's victory demonstrates that support for drug policy reform, and even for legalizing marijuana, is no detriment to electoral success -- in fact it was a key asset in his triumph," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Action, in a statement on Wednesday. "Reyes' surprising defeat, meanwhile, shows that kneejerk support for persisting with failed drug war tactics can hurt politicians at the ballot box."
The theme is especially evident in California, where federal enforcement actions around state-sanctioned medical marijuana laws have been most severe. Congressional candidate Andy Caffrey (D) made marijuana legalization the defining issue of his campaign this month, often lighting up on the trail and vowing to smoke a joint on the steps of the U.S. Capitol if he wins election this fall. Further, he's had to work to set himself apart on legalization since all the top candidates running against him in California's Second District support taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol. Indeed, any candidate chosen to replace retiring Rep. Lynn Woolsey will almost certainly be anti-prohibitionist.
As offbeat as Caffrey's campaign strategy may be, he has public opinion on his side -- and not just among liberal Californians. Nearly three-quarters of Americans and more than two-thirds of Republicans believe federal officials should respect state laws on medical marijuana, according to a recent Mason-Dixon survey. Moreover, a majority of Americans think marijuana should be legalized nationwide and regulated like alcohol and tobacco.
After details surfaced in the forthcoming biography by David Maraniss that Obama has long enjoyed smoking pot and even had a smoking club of sorts known as the "Choom Gang," his administration's interagency crackdown on the cannabis industry has appeared all the more hypocritical. Since October 2009, the Justice Department has conducted more than 170 SWAT-style raids in nine states that allow medical marijuana, resulting in at least 61 federal indictments, according to data compiled by Americans for Safe Access.
The Washington Free Beacon's Sonny Bunch best explains Obama's pot problem. "It's not so much that people think he's a hypocrite for turning against pot smoking as an adult," Bunch writes. "It's that people think he's a hypocrite because they don't actually think he thinks smoking pot is a big deal." The argument is similar to the kerfuffle around gay marriage, when progressives claimed the president was never truly opposed to gay marriage, he just didn't find it politically expedient to support it.
Now House and Senate candidates may be picking up his slack. "I'm willing to get arrested to fight for our rights, to defend our rights as Californians to consume medicine," Caffrey told Politico in an interview. "If I have to do it, I'll smoke a joint on the Capitol steps and get arrested to draw national attention to what's going on."
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