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Marijuana Ballot Measures Could Affect Key U.S. Senate Elections

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Control of the U.S. Senate could hinge on the outcome of elections in states where voters will also decide on marijuana ballot initiatives this November.

Conventional political wisdom holds that cannabis on the ballot drives voter turnout by young people and progressives who are likely to back Democrats, but is that really the case? Hard evidence to date is slim at best, and the results of this year’s midterms could help shed light on the question.

Republicans currently enjoy the barest of majorities in Congress’s upper house, with 51 seats to 47 Democrats (and two independents who caucus and vote with Democrats).

In order to gain control of the Senate, and perhaps finally see cannabis bills called for hearings, Democrats need to eke out electoral victories in places like Nevada, where a booming recreational marijuana marketplace is entering its second year. And, they must also hold onto seats in states like Missouri and North Dakota, deeply conservative areas won by President Donald Trump in 2016 that CNN placed on a list of the ten Senate seats most likely to flip.

In Missouri, voters will decide on three separate medical cannabis measures. And in North Dakota, where medical marijuana won a shock, longshot victory in 2016, voters have the chance to legalize recreational marijuana.

For most of the past decade, cannabis has enjoyed relatively consistent and sometimes overwhelming success in American elections.

Four out of five legalization measures before voters in 2016 won. On the same day, medical marijuana was legalized in red states like Arkansas, North Dakota and Florida, where more than 71 percent of voters approved the ballot measure. And in June, voters in Oklahoma approved medical cannabis despite the fact that supporters were heavily outspent by opponents.

Both the turnout and the result of these upcoming Senate elections could provide a clue to marijuana’s true power in drawing voters to the polls, and demonstrate both mainstream political parties’ appetite to embrace cannabis as a campaign issue.

In Missouri, according to recent polling, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is in a dead heat with Republican challenger Josh Hawley, the state attorney general. By contrast, the same poll showed medical marijuana ahead by a solid 54 percent to 35 percent margin.

It’s not exactly clear what would happen if more than one of the three marijuana measures on the ballot win, but in the poll, voters indicated their clear preference for some change in state law to allow medical use of the drug.

McCaskill said in a recent interview that she will support at least one of the cannabis initiatives. “I do think medical marijuana should be passed,” she said.

But for now, the Missouri Democratic Party apparatus is choosing not to highlight McCaskill’s support for the popular medical cannabis issue. Their reasoning is not known.

Meanwhile, for his part, Hawley announced on Wednesday that he is “inclined to support” at least one of the marijuana initiatives.

In North Dakota, state elections officials announced on Monday that a legalization measure has qualified for the ballot.

Polling in that state’s Senate race is inconsistent, but one June estimation gave Republican challenger Kevin Cramer a four-point edge over incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

Heitkamp’s victory in 2012 was by a single percentage point, and she was the first Democrat to win statewide election there in almost a decade. Those two factors fueled Roll Call’s decision to declare the race tilting in Cramer’s favor.

For his part, Cramer, who is currently a member of the U.S. House, said he would vote against the legalization ballot measure. In 2015, he supported a floor amendment to shield state medical cannabis programs from federal interference, but opposed a broader measure to protect recreational laws.

Might Heitkamp gamble on cannabis to give her an edge, considering her state’s embrace of medical cannabis two years ago? She dodged the question in a recent interview with MyNDNow.com, but has said that marijuana is a state issue that should be free of federal interference.

She is also cosponsoring Senate legislation to let cannabis businesses access banks.

A poll earlier this year showed that North Dakota voters favor cannabis legalization 45 percent to 39 percent.

In two months’ time, if Heitkamp still trailing Cramer in the polls, she could probably do worse than to fully embrace a popular issue like marijuana legalization, regardless of any turnout effect the measure’s appearance on the ballot might have.

Marijuana Emerges As Key Issue In Nevada U.S. Senate Race

Photo courtesy of Democracy Chronicles.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Chris Roberts is a reporter and writer based in San Francisco. He has covered the cannabis industry since 2009, with bylines in the Guardian, Deadspin, Leafly News, The Observer, The Verge, Curbed, Cannabis Now, SF Weekly and others.

Politics

Andrew Yang Peddles Marijuana-Themed Presidential Campaign Merchandise

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2020 candidate Andrew Yang announced on Saturday that his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is rolling out a line of marijuana-themed merch.

The limited edition products blend Yang’s love of mathematics with his support for cannabis reform. A t-shirt being offered for $30 simply says, “Math. Money. Marijuana.” And a now-sold-out baseball cap says “Math” on the front and displays a cannabis leaf on back. There’s also a bumper sticker that says, “Legalize Marijuana.”

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

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Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President

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South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.

Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.

Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”

The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”

Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”

“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”

“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”

“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”

The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”

The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”

Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”

Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”

In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.

“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”

One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.

“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.

The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.

But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.

In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.

“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”

Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”

Elizabeth Warren’s Criminal Justice Plan Involves Legalizing Marijuana And Safe Injection Sites

This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States

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Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.

The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.

Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.

It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.

Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.

Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”

“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”

Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.

During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”

“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”

He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”

Federally Funded Journal Exposes How Marijuana Prohibition Puts Consumers At Risk

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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