When Texas voters hit the polls in November, they’ll face a choice between two U.S. Senate candidates who have significantly divergent views on marijuana and are facing off in one of the nation’s most-watched races, the result of which could determine whether Democrats or Republicans end up controlling Congress’s upper chamber.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) is taking on incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is running for a second term. Polling reveals a surprisingly tight race—with O’Rourke behind by about four points on average—and while marijuana isn’t exactly center stage for either campaign, it’s clear how the candidates differ on the issue.
O’Rourke wants to end the federal prohibition of cannabis and create a legal, regulated system to deter youth consumption while stripping criminal enterprises of profits. He also supports expunging the criminal records of people who’ve been convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses.
When it comes to underage use, O’Rourke has voiced concerns about marijuana’s potential impact on cognitive development. In a road trip campaign video from last year, he said that all of the solutions to that problem were “bad,” but the “least bad” solution was legalization and regulation.
The congressman has also supported various pieces of marijuana-related legislation during his time in the House, including measures that would expand cannabis research, prevent federal interference in legal states and increase access to medical marijuana for veterans. He is also the lead sponsor of a bill that would repeal a law that reduces highway funding for states that don’t automatically suspend drivers licenses for people convicted of drug offenses.
Taken together, it’s no surprise that O’Rourke would receive an endorsement for his Senate run from NORML’s political action committee. In a press release, NORML PAC executive director Erik Altieri said the Democratic nominee “has been a true champion for abolishing our disastrous prohibition on marijuana since the very beginning of his political career as a city council member in El Paso.”
“As Senator, O’Rourke will be an outspoken and indispensable ally in reforming our federal laws relating to marijuana and fight to finally end our failed prohibitionist policies that are currently tearing apart families, oppressing communities of color, squandering countless tax dollars, and filling the coffers of criminal cartels.”
The organization gave O’Rourke a B+ grade in its congressional scorecard.
O’Rourke has been a vocal supporter of marijuana policy reform since years before he entered Congress, for example speaking at the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference.
On a lighter note, O’Rourke made headlines this summer when he performed the marijuana-themed song “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” on stage with fellow Texan Willie Nelson.
O’Rourke has also found a friend in Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), another pro-legalization lawmaker who supports the congressman’s bid to de-seat Cruz.
My friend & colleague @BetoORourke understands what's at stake with dangerous & unfair marijuana policies. A message I've carried around the country, but nothing beats hearing it from a high profile candidate like Beto as he takes on Ted Cruz.https://t.co/oQPFyz2QZa
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) August 30, 2018
Speaking of Cruz, the incumbent senator has taken a decidedly federalist approach to marijuana, saying that while he personally wouldn’t vote for any state referendum to legalize cannabis, he believes that it’s the “prerogative” of voters to decide on the issue at the state level without federal interference.
“The people of Colorado have made a different decision. I respect that decision.“
“It is an opportunity for the rest of the country to see what happens here in Colorado, what happens in Washington state, see the states implement the policies,” Cruz said in April 2016 in the midst of his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination that year. “If it works well, other states may choose to follow. If it doesn’t work well, other states may choose not to follow.”
And while Cruz has received a “C” grade from NORML for his hands-off position on state marijuana legalization efforts, he hasn’t signed his name onto a single piece of cannabis reform legislation during his time in the Senate.
He’s also attempted to undermine his opponent throughout the campaign by criticizing O’Rourke’s drug policy reform platform.
Specifically, the senator has taken comments O’Rourke made during his time as a member of the El Paso City Council out of context and leveraged those comments to suggest that his opponent supports legalizing all drugs, including heroin.
With opioids ravaging so many American communities, Congressman Beto O’Rourke's radical resolution to legalize all narcotics—including heroin and other deadly opioids—is looking worse and worse all the time: https://t.co/VdwaYMccMn #TXSen
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 1, 2018
The “radical resolution” Cruz referenced wasn’t actually a resolution in favor of legalization itself; rather, O’Rourke floated the idea of simply considering ending prohibition as an amendment to a 2009 City Council measure focused on curbing violence near the U.S.-Mexico border. PolitiFact rated Cruz’s tweet as “false.”
“It was an artless, and even inaccurate amendment to the larger resolution (I only learned later that marijuana is not a narcotic, even though it was precisely that drug that I felt people would be most open to debating), but it got the point across,” O’Rourke wrote in his 2011 book, Dealing Death and Drugs. He continued:
“I knew we were addressing a taboo topic, one that conventional wisdom dictated that only potheads, hard-core libertarians and political suicides ever brought up. But I also knew that Juarez had gone beyond the pale and it was time to place all options on the table, even those that had been unthinkable, for me as well as others, just a year ago.”
Even so, Cruz’s team put out a political ad that seems meant to look like O’Rourke personally endorses the legalization of all narcotics.
.@TedCruz also has a new TV ad contrasting his work on unemployment drug testing with @BetoORourke's 2009 comments about the war on drugs (Background: https://t.co/cLxvNdigIs). #txsen pic.twitter.com/leVOnazXaN
— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) August 3, 2018
The ad also notes Cruz’s support for legislation mandating drug testing for individuals seeking federal unemployment benefits.
It’s not the first time O’Rourke’s push to debate legalization has been used by political opponents. But when former U.S. Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-TX) tried to convince voters that O’Rourke’s resolution amendment meant he was for legalizing all drugs during their 2009 Democratic primary race, it seemed to backfire.
Reyes had personally lobbied the El Paso City Council to defeat O’Rourke’s proposal, a move that angered the councilman so much that three years later he ran against the congressman in a Democratic primary.
Voters chose the challenger over the incumbent for the nomination, clearing the path for O’Rourke’s rise to Congress. Of course, a congressional primary election in a Democratic-leaning district in 2009 doesn’t exactly provide a clean parallel to a 2018 statewide Senate race in Texas, and Cruz seems to be betting that similar anti-drug messaging will serve him better in November than it did Reyes.
It’s not clear to what extent each candidate’s marijuana stance will influence how Texans vote in the midterm election, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind going into November. Sixty-one percent of Texas voters favor ending federal cannabis prohibition, compared to just 34 percent who oppose it, according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University survey.
Even the Texas Republican Party endorsed marijuana decriminalization and expansion of the state’s current limited medical cannabis law during their June conference.
And while Cruz’s federalist perspective on the issue distinguishes him from other hardline prohibitionists in Congress, it seems increasingly clear that even in red states like Texas, where no Democrat has been elected to statewide office in decades, marijuana has become a political mainstay.
Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.
Colorado Governor Touts Marijuana Legalization’s Benefits
After the 2012 election, which saw Colorado become the first state to legalize marijuana, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said he probably would have reversed the vote if he had a magic wand.
But with the perspective of a few years post-legalization, today he says he’d put that wand “back in the drawer.”
“I’m not quite there to say this is a great success, but the old system was awful,” Hickenlooper said at a forum hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago on Wednesday.
What’s more, “the things that we most feared—a spike in teenage consumption, a spike in overall consumption, people driving while high—we haven’t seen them,” he said.
“We had a little increase in teenage consumption, but then it went down. We do think that some of the teenage consumers are using it a little more frequently than they were five years ago before legalization. We have in many ways seen no demographic where there’s an increase in consumption, with one exception: senior citizens. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.”
Hickenlooper, who’s been floated as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, described the challenges his administration faced when Colorado voters approved an adult-use legalization measure. Elected officials and advisors were opposed to it, he said, and plus, “it’s no fun to be in conflict with federal law.”
But he pushed forward with implementation, recruiting the “smartest people” he could find to figure out the best approach to regulation and taxation. And Illinois, which recently elected pro-legalization J.B. Pritzker for governor, will likely be better off if they pursue reform because they can learn from the successes and failures of Colorado’s system, Hickenlooper said.
“Ultimately, I haven’t come to a final conclusion yet, but I think it’s looking like this is going to be—for all of the flaws and challenges we have—a better system than what we had. You guys are going to benefit, I think, having let us make a bunch of the mistakes and deal with it, I think you’re going to be able to have a much better system if indeed that is the direction that the state wants to go.”
Asked what advice he’d give to Pritzker if Illinois does elect to fully legalize cannabis, Hickenlooper offered three tips: 1) don’t overtax marijuana, or else the illicit marketplace will persist, 2) get data from law enforcement on the presence of cannabis metabolites in the blood after highway fatalities to establish “good baselines” for comparison and 3) set limits on THC concentrations in edibles.
“What they’re selling now, they tell me it’s 10-to-12 times more intense than what allegedly I smoked in high school,” Hickenlooper said, pausing before conceding, “I smoked pot in high school and I inhaled, but it was a fraction of the intensity of what these kids are getting now.”
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Economic Club of Chicago.
The DEA Just Got Scolded Over Its Marijuana Eradication Program
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) got a slap on the wrist from a federal watchdog agency over its management of a multi-million dollar marijuana eradication program.
In a report released on Wednesday, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the DEA had failed to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners that received funds through the federal program. And that lapse could prevent the agency from being able to accurately assess “program performance.”
What’s more, the DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals,” according to the report.
In other words, the agency expends about $17 million in funds to partners across the U.S. each year to help them get rid of illegal cannabis grows. That includes fully legal states like California, where enforcement efforts are generally limited to public lands—namely national forests. But due to inadequate record keeping, the DEA doesn’t really know if that money is serving its purpose.
To fix the problems, the GAO issued four recommendations:
1. The DEA Administrator should develop and implement a plan with specific actions and time frames to ensure that regional contractors are implementing DEA’s requirement for collecting documentation supporting participating agencies’ Domestic Cannabis Eradication And Suppression Program (DCE/SP) program expenditures in the intended manner.
2. The DEA Administrator should clarify DCE/SP guidance on the eradication and suppression activities that participating agencies are required to report, and communicate it to participating agencies and DEA officials responsible for implementing DCE/SP.
3. The DEA Administrator should clearly document all DCE/SP program goals.
4. The DEA Administrator should develop DCE/SP performance measures with baselines, targets, and linkage to program goals.
The DEA was able to review a draft of the GAO report ahead of its release and, in an October 17 letter, a Justice Department official said the agency concurred with all four of the recommendations and would take steps to address them.
You can listen to a podcast about the GAO report here:
Just because it’s the DEA’s program doesn’t mean it’s the only agency dropping the ball on marijuana eradication efforts. In April, a report from the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that agents weren’t adequately cleaning up public lands after cannabis busts, which can pose threats to humans, animals and the environment.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Here’s How Much Legal Marijuana Supporters And Opponents Spent Per Vote In Last Week’s Election
Political committees concerned with marijuana law reform in four states have waged an information war over the past year, first to qualify cannabis initiatives for the ballot, and then to support or oppose those measures in the lead-up to last week’s midterm elections. In total, over $12.9 million in cash and in-kind services was spent attempting to convince voters about these marijuana ballot measures.
Now that voters have had their say, Marijuana Moment decided to calculate how much each “yes” and “no” vote cost the committees on either side of the debate. Our calculations are based on dollars raised and disclosed before the election, since final totals of actual expenditures won’t be available until December or January reports required in the states that voted on cannabis.
In Michigan, where voters approved marijuana legalization, our calculations show that the two anti-legalization committees spent about $1.28 per “no” vote, as they raised $2.37 million for the 1.85 million votes against the measure. The proponents spent 19 percent more per vote, or $1.52 for each of 2.35 million “yes” votes.
In Missouri, three separate medical cannabis initiatives competed in the run-up to Election Day, resulting in the highest funding levels of the four states we looked at. There, committees raised a total of $5.4 million dollars to influence voters. Across all the committees, the average cost per “yes” vote was $1.82.
Amendment 3, which was supported by Find the Cures PAC, spent $2.91 for each of its 747,977 votes. Proposition C, supported by Missourians for Patient Care, spent $1.44 for each of its 1.03 million votes. New Approach Missouri, which supported winning Amendment 2, which garnered the support of 1.57 million voters, spent the least, at $1.10 per vote. Only Amendment 2 received a majority and was approved.
Given that there were three competing measures on the ballot, vote costs cannot be parsed in the same binary “yes” or “no” on marijuana reform that is possible for initiatives in the other states. A “no” vote for one measure in Missouri was often paired with a “yes” vote for another.
In North Dakota, there were many fewer votes cast on the state’s marijuana legalization initiative as compared to cannabis measure elsewhere, a total of 324,550. The two committees that opposed Measure 3 heavily outspent the pro-reform committees, to the tune of $629,648 to $94,308. With 131,585 people voting for the initiative, the cost per “yes” vote was 72 cents. On the opposing side, winning came at a high price: Each “no” vote cost four and a half times as much, or $3.26, the most costly per-vote expense on a marijuana ballot measure in the nation this year.
In Utah, a relatively state where proponents of medical cannabis measure Proposition 2 were narrowly outspent by opponents, the cost per vote was higher. Votes are still being counted more than a week after Election Day, but preliminary vote totals show opponents spent $908,464, or $1.99 for each of the 455,879 votes against the initiative. The prevailing “yes” committees spent $831,471 for 493,060 votes, or $1.69 each. About 8 percent of precincts are yet to be counted, so both of these figures will decrease as more votes are added to both the support and opposition tallies.
Overall in the three states that had a straight up-or-down vote (Michigan, Utah and North Dakota), the average cost per “no” vote was slightly more than each “yes” vote, with prohibitionist committees spending an average of $1.56 for each “no” vote, versus $1.51 spent on average for each “yes” votes. It should be noted that those costs include millions of dollars in in-kind services. In Michigan, for example, The Coalition to Regulate Cannabis like Alcohol reported $706,900 in in-kind services, or 23 percent of their total fundraising.
Looked at another way, the average per state cost (rather than total votes average) for “yes” votes was $1.31 while “no” votes cost 67 percent more: $2.18. And with the total number of “yes” votes in those states outnumbering “no” votes by 19 percent, it would seem that in the state-by-state marijuana legalization battle, you don’t always get what you pay for.