• November 27, 2020

Is Marijuana Why We Don’t Know Who Won the Election?

 Is Marijuana Why We Don’t Know Who Won the Election?

Original art for TNS by Lizzy Oakley Photography

The nation’s political class should have learned an important lesson last evening: voters like marijuana and other substances more than they like politicians, of any stripe. Even as we’re all on eggshells awaiting the outcome of the presidential election, there’s no question voters in deep red and bright blue states alike agree that they’re over the war on ‘drugs’ already.

In the face of vocal opposition, including from some well-known local politicians, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota decided they want marijuana regulated just like a six-pack of beer. Even in Mississippi, residents overcame daddy-state scare tactics and overwhelmingly – it’s hovering around 70 percent at the moment – ushered in a new era for the Bible Belt. One-third of Americans now live in states where marijuana is legal, either for medicinal or recreational use, making it a no-brainer to many.

“If the facts don’t sway you, then the politics should, and I think that as we go along it’s going to be less and less politically tenable for lawmakers to hold on to these outdated ideas,” Morgan Fox, the director of media relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told The News Station Tuesday night.

It’s not just advocates. Rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties had all but begged their party leaders to champion marijuana ahead of Election Day, but party leaders refused. Now Democratic and GOP leaders look like fools, as we all eagerly wait to find out who our next president will be. 

Marijuana’s Popularity is Nothing New

After Hillary Clinton lost four years ago, many Democratic fingers were pointed across the political spectrum as some blamed progressives for sitting it out and others blamed Hillary for being, well, Hillary. But Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) – one of the wonkier members of Congress who is often seen taking notes as if he were a doctoral candidate – brushed aside the acrimonious family feud.

Instead, he crunched the numbers. And he formed a theory from the data: the problem was marijuana, or, more precisely, the lack of marijuana. He contends the fewer than 80,000 votes she lost Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by wouldn’t have mattered had she just listened to him when he explained cannabis polling to her and her Brooklyn team (and he knows she saw the briefing because WikiLeaks published her notes later). That’s because polls show cannabis moves voters.

“One race that I know it would have made a profound difference: If Hillary Clinton were able to make a coherent answer to the question about legalization of cannabis, I think she’d be president today,” Blumenauer, who helped found the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told me two years ago. “There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have more than doubled that mark with advocacy for legal cannabis.”

Pot’s the Most Bipartisan Thing in DC

Mississippi voters turned many heads last evening when they voted to legalize medical marijuana. That shouldn’t have been news to GOP leaders, especially not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans in his home state of Kentucky, i.e. his base, came out 90 percent in favor of medicinal cannabis just this spring. And even that wasn’t news to his fellow GOP lawmakers back home.

“I have polled it in Kentucky,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) told The News Station earlier this fall. “I polled it in 2014, and I polled Republicans. Two-thirds of Republicans supported medical marijuana, but three-quarters of Republicans in my congressional district supported letting the states decide.”  

Even though Massie isn’t a member of the Cannabis Caucus, he agrees with its co-chair, Rep. Blumenauer, that whichever party claims marijuana first will see an instant electoral windfall.

“I think my party is a little bit behind on this, but the Democrats are, too. The first party that does this gets like another 4% [of support] on a straight ballot,” Massie said.

Original art for TNS by Lizzy Oakley Photography
Original art for TNS by Lizzy Oakley Photography

Over on the Democratic side, it’s a similar story from the rank-and-file. Party leaders in the House planned to bring a marijuana decriminalization bill to the floor ahead of the election, but suburban moderates freaked out, the party’s leaders caved, and the vote was then rescheduled until after the election.

But the three top Democrats in the House don’t care about drug policy, at least according to what House Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) told me ahead of the midterm elections: “It’s not important to me.” Then this spring House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told me he basically never talks with Pelosi about cannabis.

That dismissiveness from the Democratic old guard astonishes younger members of the party who know marijuana is electrifying to many voters.

“It would get young people energized, it would get people energized on issues of racial justice,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told The News Station. “I don’t think there’s any swing voter, suburban voter who’s going to not vote for a candidate based on that issue, but I do think that a lot of people would come out to the polls [for it].”

Even one of the few remaining southern Democrats was dumbfounded when Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn listened to the frantic cries of a handful of freshmen lawmakers and pulled the decriminalization bill from the floor just weeks out of the election.     

“I think it was a mistake,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told The News Station at the time.

“I think it’s a no-lose proposition for Democrats; I think it’s an all-win for Democrats,” Yarmuth said, before discussing moderate Democrats’ oversized fears of this popular issue. “I think they’re nervous about a lot of votes, but I’ve run on this in Kentucky. I’ve said: ‘Any Democrat should be for legalization; it’s a no-lose proposition. We don’t lose one vote, but we’d bring a whole lot of new voters in.’”

Weed is Washington’s Worst Kept Secret

Party leaders in Washington seem to still be hungover from the Nixonian war on things most Americans like, I mean, ‘drugs.’ The racist underpinnings of that Nixon administration effort to divide and conquer America eventually expanded into more general fearmongering across racial and class lines.

As Nixon and his minions helped focus and then foment these myths, he won reelection in a historic landslide – winning 49 states. He then went on to make history by resigning so he could escape formal removal from office by Congress and the Courts. Still, today’s 80-something Democratic Party leaders in the House seem to only remember the shellacking, and not the myths they appear to have internalized.

Again, none of this is new, which is why it’s astounding that it’s still the reality here in the nation’s capital, even as most states have rejected the backwards thinking from the Washington political class.

“The Democratic Party has yet to grasp that marijuana is an issue that moves a core segment of voters which they keep on claiming they want to target, which are white men,” Justin Strekal, political director for marijuana advocacy group NORML, told me back in 2018.  

That was two years ago. Yet the party’s brain trust refused to listen. Younger Democrats get it though, especially the party’s growing progressive ranks. 

“It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that this is not on the Democratic platform,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told The News Station this summer after Joe Biden successfully moved the DNC’s platform from marijuana legalization in 2016 to mere decriminalization in 2020. “The Democratic platform on this issue is more conservative than it was in 2016.”

That move was an unforced error for the entire Democratic Party, which wasn’t lost on Trump-ally Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). 

“I’m trying to get my party to move forward. I don’t know why the Democrats are moving backwards,” Gaetz told The News Station.

Even so, Gaetz failed to get Trump to move on this issue that he’s a boisterous advocate for. But that’s the astounding thing: Marijuana is more popular than both parties and their party leaders. And everyone here in Washington seems to know it – whether they’re from blue, purple, or dark red states.

“We know, the public’s changing,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) told The News Station. “I mean, that’s not a secret.”

You wouldn’t know that from watching Democratic and Republican leaders party like it’s 1970, instead of partying like their constituents living in 2020. 

Matt Laslo

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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