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We’ve been talking about the legalization of marijuana as a political issue for several years, but the results never come out that strongly for pro-pot politicians at the voting booth. Sure, there are large pockets of legalization at the state level, but very few national politicians, including elected Democrats, have been ready to become stalwart backers of a nationwide legalization policy. Perhaps similar to the issue of same-sex marriage, where we witnessed Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both “evolve” on the issue over the years since the 2008 election, the legalization of marijuana is becoming more supported by the general public which means politicians won’t be far behind the curve if they think it means more support at the ballot box.

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This story from Dan Merica, at CNN, posits that recent years have shown a larger shift in public opinion, and perhaps some of the 2020 Democratic contenders will become full-throated endorses of decriminalizing pot if they think it will garner support:

The shift has left Democratic operatives and marijuana legalization activists across the country saying it’s difficult to imagine a debate stage in the 2020 primary race where almost all of the presidential hopefuls don’t publicly back removing marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The latest signal came when Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2016 Democratic candidate who is widely considered a top contender for the nomination in 2020, signed onto The Marijuana Justice Act on Thursday. The bill, proposed by Sen. Cory Booker, himself a 2020 contender, would effectively end the federal crackdown on marijuana by removing the drug from the Controlled Substances Act. It was also backed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another possible 2020 hopeful.

Democratic endorsement of legalization would also be a departure from the party’s 2016 position. Hillary Clinton, the party’s nominee in 2016, said the federal government should allow states to legalize marijuana and called for removing the drug from the schedule 1 list, but did not go so far as to call for its removal from the Controlled Substances Act.

Even just a couple years ago public opinion was pretty soft in opposition to making some changes to how marijuana was classified, yet, as the article mentions, Hillary Clinton stopped short of fully backing legalization in 2016.

So why would Democrats be so skittish on this topic when it appears, in most polling, that legalization is support by a majority of Americans. The answer may trace back to the 1980s and 1990s when the “War on Drugs” was raging and battles were being fought in the voting booth, with Democrats on the losing end:

The wariness around fully supporting marijuana comes despite the fact that public attitudes toward the drug have become more favorable.

In October, a Gallup poll showed 64 percent of Americans supported legalizing marijuana, up from 58 percent in 2013. Only a third of Americans supported legalization in 2001.

Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said many Democrats are afraid of being seen as weak on drugs.

“I think it’s the scars left over from the ’80s and early ’90s where Republicans weaponized being soft on crime,” he said. Those charges, in his view, were “full of baloney.”

Altieri said championing legalization could pay political dividends for the party.

“In some ways that point may have passed to look like you are taking a principled stance,” he said. “[But] this action by Jeff Sessions should drive the Democrats.”

And those who don’t get on board “are going to find themselves on the wrong side of history,” he said.

Other experts urged caution. Sam Kamin, professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver, said while support for legalization is increasing, it isn’t enough to move an election.

“I hear from political types support for marijuana is broad but not very deep,” he said. “While it’s popular, it’s not the thing that changes people’s minds to support a candidate.”

The polling, while appearing to be favorable on the top-line numbers toward legalization, doesn’t indicate a deep-seated, aggressive support among voters. In fact, think of marijuana as one of those issues that remains near the bottom of the list when voters are asked to rank what is most important to them. Examining the polling from 2016 shows that legalization and/or drug policy doesn’t even make the top ten list of voter concerns.

In other words, support for legalization seems softer than polling would make you believe. Many voters may simply “not care” if pot is legal, but they might start to care if it becomes an issue and Democrats may still be fearing they’d be the “soft on crime” party who doesn’t care about drug-free school zones, etc…

I’d imaging that for a national Democratic politician, saying that marijuana should be “left to the states” is the signal that they agree with legalization, to some extent, and they’d let the states decide how to handle drug policy when it comes to marijuana.

Back to the original CNN article, it appears that many voters within the base of the Democratic Party are ready to embrace the cause:

Activists who have long hoped the issue would become a key plank in a Democratic nomination fight are hopeful Thursday’s news signals a watershed moment is on the horizon.

“Descheduling marijuana should and will likely be a litmus test in the 2020 Democratic primary,” said Erik Altieri, the executive director of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “As we have seen, leaders from the party are seeing that leading the charge on this is not just good policy but is good politics.”

In response to the grassroots support on the Democratic side, some elected Democrats are already touching up their credentials when it comes to pot:

Sanders, Booker and Gillibrand are not the only possible candidates backing legalized marijuana, either.

Both Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, two other potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination, have defended the successful efforts to legalize marijuana in their respective states. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said earlier this year that she is planning to introduce legislation that protects states that have legalized marijuana from a possible crackdown. And Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has already started to make trips out to early presidential primary and caucus states, helped implement the plan to legalize marijuana in California, making his city that largest in the United States selling legal pot.

I’m not convinced this issue is a winning issue in national elections, yet. When coupled with the Opioid epidemic, the thought of easing drug restrictions could become a campaign issue where a tougher stance wins out, regardless of any reasonable arguments made in favor of legalization. In fact the campaign ads practically write themselves. “Senator so and so wants to legalize more addictive drugs while America wrestles with opioid deaths in record numbers…” The two things are not really related, but sure sounds like the connection could be made to underpin a basis for opposing efforts to legalize pot. Marijuana tends to be a regional issue in the current political climate, and is still likely to stay that way for many years.

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Nate Ashworth is the Founder and Senior Editor of Election Central. He's been blogging elections and politics for almost a decade. He started covering the 2008 Presidential Election which turned into a full-time political blog in 2012 and 2016.

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