There is a widespread perception that marijuana legalization is only a Democratic Party priority. Perhaps in the past this was true. However, shifting attitudes on the part of the public have made potential legalization a bipartisan issue drawing Republican support as well.
The trend over the past two decades has been towards decriminalization of marijuana. Originally, much of the momentum towards decriminalization and legalization was made at the municipal level. City politics are traditionally bastions of the Democratic Party. After cities had decriminalized marijuana, many states followed. Several advanced beyond decriminalization to legalization. These states were also considered “blue states,” giving the perception that legalization was a cause supported by only one side of the aisle.
However, attitudes towards marijuana have progressed among all sectors of the population. A recent poll has shown that a majority of Republicans support marijuana legalization. In addition, support for legalization among Democrats and Independents is also at record high. Overall, 64 percent of the American public supports legalization, and a fifth of all Americans live in a state with legalized marijuana in some form.
This uptick in support is apparent among politicians as well. Although there is opposition from some members of the Executive Branch to legalization, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, there are some pockets of support elsewhere among Republican politicians. For example, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado has become a strong defender of legalized marijuana after his state passed a referendum permitting its usage. When the Department of Justice threatened to enforce federal drug laws, Gardner appealed to President Trump, who promptly backed away from the threat issued by his own Justice Department. For those worried that the federal government will squelch the gains made at the state level, Gardner’s defense of legalization in Colorado should assuage some fears.
For some Republicans, marijuana legalization is a federalism issue. Any federal attempts to encroach on legalization is a matter of states’ rights. For example, Congressman Dana Rohrbacher has sponsored the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, which seeks to prevent federal prosecution of those engaged in activities related to marijuana that are legal in the states. The bill has 12 Republican cosponsors, indicating that legalization is not simply a partisan issue.
Democrats are realizing the potency of marijuana legalization as a political issue. Largely, they realize that the majority of voters support legalization so it has become an emerging consensus in the party. Most major Democratic politicians have voiced support for legalization. At the very minimum, few have publicly opposed it. There are nuances in the level of support, with some supporting legalization and others supporting decriminalization. The open question is how vocal some Democrats choose to be in support of legalization of marijuana. Some Democrats are afraid that their position on marijuana legalization may earn them the dreaded label of “soft on crime.” Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, has been one of the more vocal proponents of legalization. He has proposed a bill that would support nationwide legalization.
Legalized marijuana may turn out to unfold in a manner similar to gay marriage. For that issue, public opinion was formed ahead of political opinions, and the politicians simply caught up to their constituents. In any event, it appears that the trend towards legalization of marijuana appears to be here to stay, and public opinion is not receding.