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Democrats still haven't figured out that legal weed is a winning issue

Democrats still haven't figured out that legal weed is a winning issue
  (Randall Benton / TNS)

Every Democratic U.S. senator rumored to be considering a 2020 presidential run supports marijuana legalization. So do 77% of Democratic voters. The party's 2016 national platform backs states’ rights on cannabis and calls for a "reasoned pathway for future legalization."

So why is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the entity charged with winning back control of the U.S. House — attacking a Republican congressman over his support for marijuana reform? And why is it citing a right-wing magazine to make the case?

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Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) has a "cult-like fixation on marijuana," said a National Review article excerpt the Democratic committee highlighted in a tweet posted Monday. The party organ said the GOP congressman's cannabis advocacy is one reason "why [Democratic nominee] @HarleyRouda needs your help flipping this seat...from #RedToBlue."

Rohrabacher has played a leadership role in beating back the federal government's outdated and harmful marijuana prohibition policies, serving as the chief sponsor of a successful amendment that since 2014 has prevented the Department of Justice from arresting cancer patients who use medical cannabis under state laws.

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Democratic leaders need to take a look in the mirror and recognize that their own members broadly support marijuana legalization.


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There are a lot of reasons why Democrats and progressives would wish for Rohrabacher to lose his reelection fight, aside from the fact that “flipping this seat from red to blue” could make the difference in determining which party controls the House come January. But marijuana is not one of them.

The Democratic committee could have highlighted Rohrabacher's position that homeowners should have the right to refuse to sell property to gay people — something mentioned by National Review in the same sentence as that cannabis quip. Or his position on climate change. Or healthcare. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has cosponsored many marijuana measures with Rohrabacher, told me in an emailed statement that the campaign committee’s tweet was "stupid," adding that he expressed those sentiments directly to the organization itself.

The problem goes beyond a “stupid” tweet. While Democrats in Congress are more likely to back marijuana reform than Republicans, party leadership has been slow to embrace the movement to end prohibition.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton didn’t endorse legalization, instead adopting the Obama administration’s “hands off states” approach. It’s worth pointing out that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein — who both campaigned on legalization — earned more votes than the margin between Clinton and Donald Trump in key states Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. During San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s four years as House speaker, moreover, Democrats only allowed one floor vote on Rohrabacher’s medical cannabis amendment. Republicans, on the other hand, allowed annual votes in the four preceding years and after regaining control of the chamber in 2014 and 2015. (They have since moved to block nearly all marijuana measures from consideration).

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The future of marijuana is legalization, in more states and federally. It’s a galvanizing issue for either party that fully embraces it first. Attacking opponents for their efforts to reform cannabis laws might have been a shrewd tactic in 1988 or 1994, but it’s a political loser in 2018. It will alienate the young, progressive voters Democrats need to form a blue wave in November. Millennials overwhelmingly support legalization.

But it's not just young voters, or Democrats. California's marijuana legalization measure, Proposition 64, passed in Rohrabacher’s Orange County congressional district by a 54.1% to 45.9% margin in 2016.

Nationally, 57% of Republicans back legalization, as do 62% of independents, according to an online poll by the Center for American Progress and GBA Strategies. Rohrabacher’s challenger, Harley Rouda, doesn't seem to fully grasp the new politics of marijuana, either. The only two times he has tweeted about cannabis were to attack Rohrabacher's advocacy.

He did, however, write a Facebook post on the 4/20 unofficial cannabis holiday, saying that "people should not be going to prison for possession or use of marijuana." Notably, that post linked an article about historically drug-war-loving Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announcing his intent to file a far-reaching marijuana bill.

Now that even Schumer and Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado — who is responsible for his party's 2018 effort to defend GOP Senate control — are on board, it would be a mistake for Democrats not to go all-in on cannabis.

Surely the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee isn’t trying to send the message to voters that President Trump, who announced his support last month for cannabis legislation filed by Gardner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), is more progressive on marijuana than a leading Democratic political organization?

Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has evolved this year — amid a reelection challenge — from vigorously campaigning against medical cannabis in 1996 and opposing state protections in Congress to finally supporting the right of Californians to get high without fear of harassment by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Democratic leaders need to take a look in the mirror and recognize that their own members broadly support marijuana legalization. And then they need to look at the polls and realize that attacking Republicans for supporting cannabis reform is a great way to remain the minority party.

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Tom Angell is publisher of Marijuana Moment, a cannabis news site and newsletter.

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