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Pot Politics

College students and Wiz Khalifa fans, rejoice!  A survey from a major national polling firm found that a majority of Americans now favor decriminalizing marijuana.  A Gallup poll released on October 17 found that a record-high — no pun intended — 50% of Americans now support the legalization of marijuana.  (Forty-six percent believe the drug should remain illegal.)

According to the Gallup survey, self-described liberals and those aged 18 to 29 are most in support of legalizing marijuana (69 and 62 percent, respectively).  Independents and Democrats both support legalization with an identical 59 percent in favor; even 35 percent of Republicans agree.  This is a startling turnaround from when Gallup first began polling the issue in 1969 (12 percent of Americans favored legalization).  As recently as 2006, only 36 percent favored legalizing marijuana.

Perhaps even more astonishing, an ABC News/Washington Post poll in 2010 found that a decisive 81% of Americans favor the legalization of medical marijuana.  Public opinion has been reflected in the legislatures of the 16 states and District of Columbia that have already decriminalized medical marijuana.  (In Alaska citizens may lawfully possess up to one ounce of cannabis.)

Polls and local legislation, however, seem unlikely to pay political dividends for those who would like to see marijuana legalized nationally.  Despite the increasing number of Americans who support legalization, the vast majority of politicians remain opposed.

According to Adam Sullivan of The Daily Iowan, “[O]pen support for pot in Washington, D.C., is sparse.  While loosening the law to allow marijuana to be used as a medicine has earned some support, there are only a few lawmakers who admit they support outright legalization.”

“In a democracy,” stated MSNBC analyst Lawrence O’Donnell on October 19, “we should expect such a dramatic shift in public opinion to be reflected in our public officials, but support for marijuana legalization in the United States Senate … has gone from 0% in 1968 to 0% in 2011.”

Although O’Donnell is clearly speaking in hyperbole, his point should not be overlooked.  No President or major party Presidential nominee in recent history has supported decriminalizing marijuana, and the number of US Senators in support of such a position could be counted on one hand.  Even in deeply blue states like California and Massachusetts, most federally elected support the status quo.

President Obama, who many liberals hoped would take steps to relax restrictions on marijuana, has proved in many ways to be just as stringent in the War on Drugs as his predecessor in the White House.

In his 2004 campaign for the Senate, Obama spoke of the need to “rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws.”  Since taking office, however, the President has rejected requests to reclassify marijuana.  Furthermore, he has begun cracking down on the medical marijuana industries in states like Colorado and California.  Although the President has directed Attorney General Eric Holder’s office to no longer prosecute individuals who were following state medical marijuana laws, marijuana is still officially considered a Schedule I drug (in same category as heroin and ecstasy).

Yet although most national politicians do not support legalizing marijuana, momentum is certainly on the side of decriminalization.  Support is growing on the local level, with the rise of the Tea Party unexpectedly aiding the movement.  Ron Paul, the Presidential candidate widely considered to be “the intellectual godfather” of the Tea Party movement, stated at a rally that he would “never use the federal government to force the law against anybody using marijuana.”

Gary Johnson, the libertarian-leaning former Governor of New Mexico, agreed.  “Pot smokers may be the largest untapped voting bloc in the country,” he told Outside Magazine.  “A hundred million Americans have smoked marijuana. You think they want to be considered criminals?”

Other politicians are beginning to embrace the idea as good fiscal policy.  According to Time’s Joe Klein, “It is estimated that pot is the largest cash crop in California, with annual revenues approaching $14 billion.  A 10% pot tax would yield $1.4 billion in California alone.  And that’s probably a fraction of the revenues that would be available — and of the economic impact, with thousands of new jobs in agriculture, packaging, marketing and advertising.  A veritable marijuana economic-stimulus package!”

For now, however, marijuana remains decidedly illegal.  Nearly 850,000 arrests are made annually for marijuana-related offenses.  Such an arrest occurs approximately every 37 seconds.

For the aspiring politician who hopes to make a name for himself, however, it increasingly appears that it may be good politics to embrace marijuana decriminalization.  Radley Balko of the Huffington Post pointed that the Gallup poll confirms that marijuana is officially more popular than President Obama, whose approval was recently clocked at just 41 percent.  The number of Americans that support legalization “exceeds the approval ratings of President Obama, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and every GOP candidate running for president.”

Politicians may be wise to think long and hard about their positions on the matter, because the issue of marijuana legalization is unlikely quietly disappear any time soon.

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