War on Drugs

Democrats Pivot to Pot for Votes. Will It Work?

It may not translate to victory in November, but increased support for marijuana legalization is a welcome change.


Four candidates are running in today's Democratic primary for Senate in Pennsylvania, and the race has gotten some coverage for its nontraditional front-runner.

Rep. Conor Lamb, who represents the state's 17th congressional district, was considered the favorite early on but has struggled against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a brash, 6'8 former mayor who came to prominence in 2020 for picking fights with his Republican counterparts in states that claimed the presidential election had been stolen from President Donald Trump.

Going into today's primary, Fetterman holds a comfortable lead, even after suffering a stroke over the weekend. But on one issue, Fetterman stands out from the average Democratic front-runner: legalizing marijuana.

As Politico reported today, Fetterman supports legalization; he even sells campaign T-shirts with marijuana leaves. In fact, the top three Democrats in the primary support legalization to some extent, though Lamb previously voted against a federal cannabis bill in 2020, saying last month that he thought any effort toward legalization "needs to be done slowly and very carefully."

Indeed, while Democratic lawmakers have hemmed and hawed over legalization since taking power last year, many Democratic candidates are using the issue to stand out from the pack. So far this year, two candidates for U.S. Senate—Thomas McDermott Jr. from Indiana, and Gary Chambers Jr. from Louisiana—have smoked pot in campaign ads. And in the Democratic primary for governor in Florida, the top two candidates spent the early days of the campaign arguing over who supported legalization more.

As Politico notes, this is a shrewd campaign strategy: Marijuana initiatives tend to drive turnout among younger voters, who are typically the hardest to get to show up. But this is more than just a youth issue: More than two-thirds of Americans support legalization, a record high. Even while acknowledging that the war on drugs has been a failure, President Barack Obama literally laughed at the idea of legalization and pursued prosecution of offenders as zealously as any of his predecessors during his time in office.

Even if Fetterman wins his party's nomination, he still faces a tough fight in November, as Republicans are favored to do well across the board. But the trend of Democrats (and some Republicans) who not only support legalization but openly advocate for it, is a welcome change and a sign that the issue might be moving in the right direction.