Marijuana was once seen as a third-rail issue of politics: You touch it, you die. Not that many years ago, many candidates for public office ran as far and as fast as they could from cannabis issues out of fear they would be attacked as soft on drugs or soft on crime.
That’s no longer the case as polls have continued to show growing majority voter support for legalization, and nowhere are the new politics of marijuana clearer than in this month’s Illinois Democratic gubernatorial primary election.
Leading candidates to be the next chief executive of the Prairie State are waging a very public battle about who is best positioned to modernize marijuana laws, with some trying to embarrass others for lagging in their support for legalization.
Contenders in the March 20 primary got into a testy Twitter exchange on the issue over the weekend, with JB Pritzker, widely seen as the front-runner in the race, accusing opponent Chris Kennedy of merely pretending to back legalization, and Kennedy telling his supporters not to believe the other campaign’s claims.
— JB Pritzker (@JBPritzker) March 3, 2018
Illinois should legalize marijuana. We will immediately broaden access to medical marijuana. Don’t let a mailer, tweet or phone call convince you otherwise. This is where I stand. https://t.co/MAeBt9QJAo
— Chris Kennedy (@KennedyforIL) March 3, 2018
The results of a new poll on the topic show why the candidates are going out of their way to be seen as more friendly to marijuana legalization than their rivals.
Two-thirds (66%) of the state’s voters favored legalization in a Southern Illinois University survey released on Monday. That’s compared to less than one-third (32%) who support continued prohibition.
Key demographics in the poll are especially on board, the crosstabs show:
- Democrats: 78%
- People under 35 years old: 89%
- Liberals: 83%
Republicans are split on legalization, with 49% for and 49% against. Independents favor ending prohibition, 62% to 36%.
Across the state, legalization enjoys majority support among all age groups, races, geographic regions, income groups and education levels, as well as from both men and women.
The survey also showed that legalization supporters have intensity on their side: 46% are strongly in favor, compared to just 24% who are strongly opposed.
With such strong backing to make Illinois the next state to transform its marijuana policies, it’s no wonder that politicians are trying to outdo each another on the issue.
Pritzker, for example, held a press conference outside a medical cannabis dispensary earlier this year to detail his support for reform.
Our state should legalize marijuana. This is not a moment for a governor who stands with Donald Trump. pic.twitter.com/HTHObxJU5V
— JB Pritzker (@JBPritzker) January 12, 2018
Kennedy has until recently opposed legalization.
Last year he said “it’s dangerous to embrace a public health hazard simply because you want revenue.”
He later shifted to saying that he is open to legalization, “but only after we have done a thorough and comprehensive review through the University of Illinois to ensure that public safety and public health are put before profit from marijuana industry.”
And now, he simply says, “Illinois should legalize marijuana.”
Another candidate, State Sen. Daniel Biss, also supports legalization. His team has gone so far as to craft a campaign slogan mashing up his name and the word “cannabis.”
We need to legalize, not criminalize cannabis. It's time for us to radically reform our justice system so that it works for the rest of us. pic.twitter.com/99b7UO1pUC
— Daniel Biss (@DanielBiss) February 4, 2018
Several candidates in this year’s state attorney general race support legalization as well.
Illinois voters may get a chance to weigh in on marijuana more directly than by simply supporting candidates who are on board. Last week, the state Senate overwhelmingly voted to place a nonbinding cannabis legalization question on the November ballot.
Voters in Cook County — the state’s most populous county and the second largest in the U.S. — will already see a similar cannabis question on their March 20 primary election ballot alongside the names of Kennedy, Prizker, Biss and other contenders for party nominations.
If the Democratic-controlled House joins the Senate in approving the statewide referendum, it could prove to be a factor in whether or not incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner or a Democrat wins the November election. Many political observers believe that putting marijuana on the ballot helps drive turnout from core Democratic constituencies such as young people.
Rauner opposes legalization and said last month that he would veto any such bill that arrives on his desk.
Illinois isn’t the only place where the new politics of marijuana are emerging; gubernatorial candidates in several other states are campaigning on marijuana reform as well.
But Illinois is the state where candidates have so far gone the furthest to make cannabis a central issue in a party nominating contest, a scenario that is likely to play out elsewhere as additional primary election dates approach in the coming months.
New York Legal Marijuana Push ‘Effectively Over’ For 2020, Governor Says
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded on Saturday that it’s unlikely marijuana will be legalized in the state this year.
“Marijuana and the gig economy were two of the more complicated initiatives that we wanted to work through that we didn’t get a chance to do,” he said in response to a question about which policy issues he would’ve liked to tackle in the annual budget bill that passed this week.
“Is the session effectively over? It’s up to the legislature, but I think it’s fair to say it’s effectively over,” he added, noting that several state lawmakers have been infected with coronavirus.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation
A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.
“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.
“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) April 3, 2020
“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”
Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.
“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”
“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.
Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.
“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”
🟢🟢 LEGALIZING COMMERCIAL MARIJUANA IN D.C. 🟢🟢
I spoke to D.C.'s Delegate @EleanorNorton
She's pushing for fully legal commercial marijuana sales in the District in a 4th Congressional stimulus package.
The District needs the money.
And people are smoking weed anyway. pic.twitter.com/PL9yoDKlrj
— Adam Longo (@adamlongoTV) April 3, 2020
Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.
For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.
Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus
North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.
“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”
Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.
“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”
The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.
The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.
Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.
Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”
Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.