Marijuana legalization is simply not up for debate in Washington — be it decriminalization, legalization or even just medical marijuana. And though Democrats and even some Republicans will decry the results of this nation’s drug war — from the increase in violence in Mexico and along our borders, to the mass incarceration of African-Americans to the criminalization of the nation’s sick who simply want relief from chronic pain and nausea — few in Washington are willing to stand up, expensive Scotch in hand, and say that their fellow Americans should have the right to toke without looking over their shoulders.
But let’s not fool ourselves that the nation’s capital is filled with lifetime abstainers — far from it. Marijuana use became so ubiquitous in the boomer years that the federal government had to begin allowing for experimental use of marijuana when granting security clearances, even to law enforcement officers. Everyone from President Obama to Sarah Palin to Newt Gingrich to Bill Clinton publicly admits to trying marijuana at some point in their lives. And if you can throw a stone in a liberal university’s PoliSci department (prime intern-recruitment ground) without hitting someone who’s tried marijuana at least once, you might be in a room full of drug-tested student athletes — though, if my long-ago neighbors are anything to go by, many student athletes don’t abstain off-season either.
It’s not that it’s unpopular with their constituents. Polling from everyone from Gallup to Rasmussen shows that increasing support for legalization over the years is now weighted in favor of it (and a CBS News poll that found otherwise last year showed 77 percent of Americans in favor of medical marijuana, if not full legalization and regulation).
So if it’s not the polls, and it’s not their own behavior, and it’s not that no one is bothered by the side effects, what is it? It’s the optics. If you say you’re interested in legalization, people think you’re a pot smoker — and, worse, that you’re not “tough on crime,” which was historically a killer for Democrats (just ask Mike Dukakis and Mario Cuomo) and a boon for the law-and-order Republicans. Washington is a town based on perceptions, passed-down wisdom and accepted truths based on history — and, let’s be frank, it’s also known for being peopled with the kind of politicians who would probably stand in midtown Manhattan with the oceans lapping at their knees and deny that climate change was having any effect on the weather. Politics is filled with once-teenage parents who preach abstinence, serial adulterers who crow about family values at the drop of a hat and teenage pot-smokers who tell their own kids that it’s a gateway drug that will ruin their lives.
It’s not about the policy, it’s about the politics. And it doesn’t matter if the effects of those policies are the loss of tax revenues, hundreds or thousands of dead at our doorstep or the mass incarceration of generations of African-Americans and Latinos — until the perceptions of the politics of marijuana legalization change (which means getting people to advocate for legalization who aren’t the typical pro-pot activists Washington politicos have come to expect) then the policies are going to stay the same.
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