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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Will Sessions War on Pot Help Sink GOP in Midterms?

Regarding Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to reverse President Obama’s directive preventing the federal government from enforcing its marijuana laws in pot-friendly states, it’s hard to see any benefit for Republicans in terms of winning over younger voters in the 2018 midterm elections. For one thing it’s likely that voters who like the Sessions directive were already going to vote for Republicans. There is just no value added for the GOP in the Sessions policy. In addition, recent polling shows overwhelming support for liberalization of marijuana laws. As Ryan Struyk reports at CNN Politics:

A broad 64% of Americans say they support the legalization of marijuana, according to a Gallup poll in October — the highest mark in more than four decades of polling…The poll shows legalization has support from 72% of Democrats — up from 61% over the last three years — and even a slim majority, 51%, of Republicans — up from just 34% in the same time span.

Medical marijuana, for its part, has nearly universal support in the United States, according to an August poll from Quinnipiac University. An overwhelming 94% of adults — including 96% of independents, 95% of Democrats and 90% of Republicans — support it.
A broad three in four Americans, 75%, say they oppose enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have legalized medical or recreational use of the drug, according to the same poll. Republicans are most likely to back enforcing federal laws anyway — but that number is still just one in three…The latest numbers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that 44% of Americans over the age of 12 have used marijuana at least once in their lifetime. A majority, 52%, of people ages 18 to 25 have used it in their lifeline, including 33% in just the last 12 months.
It’s not hard to envision a major downside for Republicans in the Sessions initiative, particularly in reefer-friendly states. As Sarah Jones writes in The New Republic,
With California poised to become the world’s largest market for legal marijuana, it seems unlikely that a government-helmed war on pot will help the GOP’s chances…It could, however, be an opportunity for Democrats. In California, the law that legalized pot drew most of its support from two factions of the party’s traditional base: Young voters and black voters. For a party whose midterm chances rest significantly on its ability to turn out voters in greater numbers than usual, pushing for legal marijuana could make a difference.

As Struyk notes, at present eight states, including Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, along with the District of Columbia, permit recreational sales of marijuana,  22 other states “allow only some form of medical marijuana and 15 allow a lesser medical marijuana extract.” Given such legislative and public opinion trends, it’s likely that the Sessions initiative will provoke numerous legal challenges, and squander millions of taxpayer dollars on a doomed policy. Such litigation could go on for years, as more and more states liberalize their marijuana laws.

So why is Sessions doing this? Snopes has discredited the notion that he hopes to personally profit from his initiative. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t motivated by hopes for big contributions to Republicans from the profiteers of the prison industrial complex. Nor would I discount the possibility that he is basically an old hippie-hater working through some sort of twisted revenge fantasy. Or maybe it’s just another expression of ‘Obama derangement syndrome,’ accommodating Trump’s obsession with reversing all of Obama’s initiatives.

In any event it’s a gift to Democrats, in the form of re-branding the Republicans as fuddy-duddies, who are devoted to making life harder for young people and others who support liberalization of marijuana laws. But I doubt many mainstream Republican midterm candidates are going to enthusiastically join in the Sessions war on pot, outside of a few hard-core prudes. Tim Dickinson reports at Rolling Stone that some Republicans,  including libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, along with pot-state Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Cory Gardner, oppose the policy.

The polls on pot legalization could get even worse for Republicans as the consequencs of Sessions’s policy become clear in the months ahead. There are Democratic midterm candidates who are looking forward to the outcome in November.

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