While much of the polling data surrounding next week’s election point to favorable results for those working to advance marijuana legalization in the U.S., some of the country’s top pot legalization advocates stress post-election will be no time to sit back and relax.
Five states will decide on some form of legalization through ballot measures, while several House and Senate races – and even the battle for the presidency – have been influenced in some way by cannabis-related issues. Representatives of top advocacy organizations, including NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), have expressed optimism that the results will play out favorably, but they also note that important work will lie ahead regardless. The election returns will mostly affect which form that work takes.
If Democrats were to maintain control in the House and re-take a majority in the Senate, for example, advocates would train their focus on federal legalization as soon as possible, said MPP Executive Director Steve Hawkins. Conversely, if Republicans keep power in the Senate and maintain the presidency, there would likely be more of a grassroots push in states to affect change.
“For advocates of cannabis reform, this is probably going to be the busiest time that we’ve ever seen,” Hawkins said Friday. “But also a time that’s probably giving us the greatest opportunity that we’ve realized to this moment.”
Ready for action
Paul Armentano, the deputy director of NORML, noted that his organization already has different strategies in place for the different possible election outcomes.
Like Hawkins, Armentano said a Democratic sweep of the House, Senate and White House would be the best-case result for legalization efforts.
He noted that NORML has been working closely with some current Democratic senators on reform efforts for years and has established some “significant alliances.” Some of those same senators, he said, will likely move into leadership positions if their party takes control of the chamber.
Under that scenario, Armentano said, “there is going to be a strong appetite in the Senate for debating and advancing significant pieces of marijuana law reform,” including having marijuana de-listed from the Controlled Substances Act.
If Republicans maintain the Senate, though, he said any reform legislation “is simply not getting through.” He based that on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) history of failing to bring reform bills for a vote.
In that scenario, Armentano said NORML’s focus would “largely remain as it has been for the last decade-plus, where the majority of reform efforts will be on state legislators and changing state policies.”
Hawkins was more optimistic about the chances of a Republican-led Senate considering cannabis reform bills, particularly if legalization ballot measures in traditionally conservative states like Montana, South Dakota and Mississippi find success.
Hawkins pointed to Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner (R), who opposed the state’s ultimately successful REC ballot measure in 2012 but has since become known as one of the top Republican cannabis supporters in the Senate. Hawkins described Gardner’s “attitudinal shift” as a result of the politician better understanding the desires of his constituency.
He said he thinks senators in South Dakota and Montana, states likely to vote for both legalization and President Donald Trump, could experience similar changes in ideology, as it relates to cannabis.
“The reality in our country is that cannabis is not a partisan issue,” he said. “It has strong support across the electorate and I think the ballot initiatives, especially this year, are going to show that.”
‘Evolution’ of the electorate
Hawkins said one of the more encouraging moments this election cycle occurred during the national vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the running mate of Joe Biden, stated during the event that a Biden administration would work to decriminalize cannabis federally.
The most telling aspect of the comment, Hawkins said, was that it didn’t elicit much of a reaction from Republican Vice President Mike Pence and, “just as importantly, it wasn’t a national news story the next day.”
“To me, that says that we’re seeing this evolution that has started with the American electorate … and now it’s catching up with the political leadership,” he said. “This kind of discussion is no longer even registering like a political outlier, and that’s a good sign that we can get something done.”
If Democrats were to sweep the branches of government, Hawkins said advocates would need to take a two-pronged approach: Immediately push for federal legalization and maintain a voice to ensure the best possible regulatory framework.
“We’re going to see a pivot to more of that kind of legislative advocacy as we go forward,” he said.
Lance Lambert, vice president of marketing for Green Flower, which develops educational and training programs for the cannabis industry and advocates on its behalf, said it will also be important for advocates to keep an eye on the global picture.
Too often, he said, those working for reform in the U.S. are hyper-focused on home and miss out on potentially helpful cues from the 40-some countries that have decriminalized or legalized in some form.
“There’s lessons that can be learned on how to, and how not to, federally legalize,” he said.
Along with learning from those other countries, he said Americans can also help affect change abroad by getting involved in overseas legalization efforts. Doing so could help change perceptions of cannabis across the globe, including back in the U.S., he said.
“The U.S. still has a voice on the international stage, so I think that we can influence and encourage,” said Lambert, who suggested that several countries are specifically waiting to see what happens in the U.S. before moving ahead with their own legalization efforts.
Hawkins, with the MPP, pointed to polls suggesting that two-thirds of Americans support some form of cannabis legalization and said that no matter the election results, advocacy groups will need to continue harnessing the power of that “small grassroots army.”
In the past, that has mostly involved developing state ballot initiatives and educating voters. This election presents an opportunity to take that to the next level, he said.
“For the legislative work, we’re going to have to be able to organize more people to go speak to their district representatives and push showing up at town halls and legislative hearings,” he said. “It’s a different beast, but I think that’s exactly where the advocacy is going to start to shift.”
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