Why Should Opponents of the War on Drugs Vote for Democrats?


This morning Radley Balko noted a Wall Street Journal story about "Democratic strategists" who hope that marijuana legalization initiatives can help draw young, left-leaning voters to the polls. The evidence of such an effect is less than overwhelming, and its impact is apt to be small, though possibly decisive in very close races. That consideration may help explain Jane Hamsher's interest in mobilizing pot-tolerant voters as well as the meager Republican support for her Just Say Now project. But more interesting is a point the Journal virtually ignores: Although Democrats take it for granted that drug policy reformers belong to them (and polls do show that supporters of California's Proposition 19 lean sharply toward Team Donkey), the party's candidates have very little to offer this constituency. The article's penultimate paragraph notes:

Few political candidates support marijuana legalization. In California, the Democratic and Republican candidates for Senate and governor oppose Proposition 19. Mr. Obama opposes legalization and would face political pressure to challenge the law if Proposition 19 passes.

Obama embodies the disappointment that almost always awaits voters who think Democrats will enact more enlightened drug policies because they sound more enlightened before they gain the power they seek. As a senatorial candidate, Obama advocated marijuana decriminalization, a position he renounced when he ran for president. As a presidential candidate, he said he would end the DEA's medical marijuana raids, a promise he broke after he was elected. So far he has waged the war on drugs, which he once called an "utter failure," in pretty much the same manner as his predecessor, only with more money. The one substantial improvement in federal drug policy since Obama took office is crack sentencing reform, which he supported. But that change was in the works for years and had already attracted support from many Republicans. Meanwhile, Obama literally laughs at the voters whom Democrats hope will turn out for them now.

Team Donkey's lesser lights do not even pretend to favor reform. As Josh Harkinson noted in a Mother Jones article that Matt Welch discussed the other day, "top California Democrats—including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown—came out hard and early against Prop 19." In fact, Harkinson argues that criticism of the war on drugs is more conspicuous among Republican politicians, including "the GOP challengers to Reps. Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi," former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (a possible presidential candidate), and Kentucky senatorial candidate Rand Paul. Harkinson has this to say about Paul's father:

Nobody, of course, is more outspoken on the issue than Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the 2008 presidential hopeful and tea party patron saint, who recently wrote that "decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level would be a start" to ending "the insanity of the War on Drugs."

Like the strategists quoted by the Journal, I hope measures like Prop. 19 boost turnout by voters who want to end the war on drugs (or at least the war on marijuana). But if they really care about that issue, they should think twice about automatically voting for Democrats.