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August 10, 2012

When and how might pot prohibition or federal pot policy enter the 2012 Prez campaign?

With the summer winding down and the political conventions not far away, I am already giving thought to whether, when and how crime and punishment issues could become part of the 2012 Presidential campaign.  One notable and distinguishing feature of recent big national elections has been the lack of engagement with domestic crime and justice issues, due in part probably to a combination of declining crime rates, declining differences in the policies of the major parties, and the focus on terrorism as the chief public safety concern to get national political attention in the wake of 9/11.

For various reasons, I expect Obama and Romney to both make the (wise? safe?) decision to avoid significant discussion of many serious domestic criminal justice issues.  Neither candidate has an exemplary record on these issues, but neither has an obvious political vulnerability on this front that the other might seek to exploit.  Thus, I will be very surprised if either campaign brings up crime and punishment issues or if there is any discussion of them at the conventions.

But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, I suspect it may prove very hard for the candidates to completely dodge some engagement with pot prohibition or federal pot policy over the next three months.  This is so for various reasons: (1) there are state pot legalization initiatives on the ballot in three states, including the swing state of Colorado, (2) Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson may work hard to get these issues into the campaign mix; (3) many local candidate are engaging with these issues in state campaigns (see, e.g., this recent story from Vermont); and (4) pro-legalization forces are very effective at pushing these issues when given a chance to post questions on YouTube or via other open avenues.

I doubt pot policy will ever become a "big" issue in the fall campaign, but I would be working hard on a nuanced answer to the many potentially tough marijuana questions if I were working for one of the campaigns.  Indeed, if Romney really needs and is looking for a "Sister Souljah Moment," as this recent New Republic commentary argues, he might consider going after Obama for seemingly breaking his 2008 campaign promise to leave states alone to do their own thing on medical marijuana fronts.  (Though were Romney to talk about reformed pot policies, we might now call this a Pat Roberson moment.)

Some recent and older related posts on pot policies and politics: 

August 10, 2012 at 09:13 AM | Permalink


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The Obama camp is already trying to paint Romney as an extremist. The attempt is pretty lame, but one thing Romney could do to buttress it is go for a "Pat Robertson moment." The Dems would scarcely believe their good fortune, and would laugh all the way to the bank (and the Electoral College).

I said it before and I'll repeat it now: The candidate who trumpets legalizing dope is the candidate who loses. Since both camps know this, it ain't gonna happen.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 10, 2012 3:13:40 PM

I don't know Bill. I don't know what the impact of the independent voter will be but if either party would like to benefit from the libertarian vote and or the green vote, talking about legalizing marijuana would make a difference. Even though the campaigns are very contentious, I'm always surprised by the number of voters who don't see much difference between the parties and have little enthusiasm for voting for either.

Both parties listen to their base, but have largely ignored the disaffected on both ends. Making government smaller and eliminating buracuracy has a great appeal. For democrats the problem is not wanting to eliminate government jobs and money in the criminal justice system. The religious right has had their own reasons for supporting the drug war. On the right - this is changing.

My feeling is that legalizing marijuana has more support in general than you might think.

Posted by: beth | Aug 11, 2012 11:08:49 AM

beth --

"My feeling is that legalizing marijuana has more support in general than you might think."

I tend not to go with my feelings, since people (you, me and everyone else) often "feel" what they would like to be true, rather than what's actually out there. Accordingly, I tend to look at the polling, and, in particular, the consensus of polls, since you can always get an outlier.

The average of the four most recent polls (CBS, Gallop, CNN, Pew) shows that pot legalization is losing 51% - 44%. See, http://www.pollingreport.com/drugs.htm

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 11, 2012 1:10:35 PM

Yes - Yes! I think I use feel just so I don't sound like such a know it all. The polls show it's close. I don't think that I was considering the majority - my point was not what the majority of voters felt, but what would appeal to the majority of independent voters. Those solidly in the R camp or D camp will vote that way even if their candidate has an affair with a chicken. The 5% to 15% of independent voters however could be the difference between a win or a loss. These people are also clearly passionate about freedom, civil liberties, and fiscal responsibility.

Posted by: beth | Aug 12, 2012 12:21:37 AM

"The candidate who trumpets legalizing dope is the candidate who loses."

This was not what happened in Oregon's recent AG race. Admittedly, Oregon is not the nation, but its recent election is an interesting data point to throw into the discussion.

In Oregon, no Republican filed for AG, so the Democratic primary was expected to be the election for the position. Dwight Holton, a former US Attorney, led in the polls, had the endorsements of pretty much every Oregon paper and every Oregon law enforcement officer or organization, and had a very significant fundraising advantage. He's a social/political moderate with strong law enforcement credentials. Late in the campaign, his opponent, Ellen Rosenblum, with aid and $ from pro-pot-legalization organizations, mounted an attack on Holton for having overseen DOJ raids on large-scale pot growers, and for having taken a pro-enforcement position in a letter to the students and faculty of Reed College. After being pilloried by pro-legalization outlets, Holton was trounced in the polls, 64-36. Oregon Republicans are now running a write-in candidate against Rosenblum in the general election, in which Rosenblum is expected to prevail.

As I said, one state is not the nation. But this instance shows, I think, that the pro-legalization side has growing power in some quarters and is no longer to be automatically written off.

Posted by: Def. Atty. | Aug 14, 2012 4:15:50 PM

Here's the U.S. news story (which came out days before the election):


Posted by: Def. Atty. | Aug 14, 2012 4:30:04 PM

Def. Atty. --

I don't know that I would set a lot of store by the results of the Democratic primary (primaries drawing the most ideologically committed voters) in Oregon (a bluer-than-blue state).

I have no doubt that the more leftist wing of the Democratic Party of a West Coast state is all in favor of pot. The question, for purposes of the national election, is whether pot sells, or even whether it would be regarded as a serious issue (rather than a distraction by a desperate candidate) in this economy.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 14, 2012 7:13:38 PM

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