Column: Presidential candidates weak on marijuana reform

Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

With a feverous field of candidates seeking to win over voters with key differences, somehow a large majority of them still don't support ending the federal government's role in the prohibition and classification of marijuana – a publicly supported change a president could arguably influence unilaterally.

Recent Gallup polls show that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing the use of marijuana, up from only 33 percent in 2000. Support numbers show a clear progressive increase in younger respondent populations, with as many as 71 percent of respondents 18 to 34 years old supporting legalization. Even the 35 to 49 year old respondent group shows 64 percent support of legalization, and still a majority of 58 percent approval in the 50 to 64 year old respondent group. As the polls point out, senior citizens are alone in their majority opposition to marijuana legalization.

The prohibition against marijuana is just a singular part of a drug war that has cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. The Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that the federal government spent over $15 billion dollars in the War on Drugs in 2010 alone.

Changing the federal government’s stance on marijuana, however, can reduce such costs and likely encourage more states to act in the public interest and legalize marijuana. While states currently see some opportunities to legalize through ballot initiatives and referendums, current federal policy is less than encouraging to state politicians and courts.

The White House website’s page for the Office of National Drug Control Policy writes that “[t]he Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.”

Coloradans might disagree. In news coverage commemorating Colorado’s first year of legalized recreational marijuana, Governor John Hickenlooper’s director of marijuana coordination Andrew Freeman said marijuana tax revenue has been able to pay for new programs teaching youth about the dangers of substance abuse, alcohol and tobacco.

In the first year of its new marijuana laws, Colorado saw an almost nine percent decline in property crime, a nine and a half percent decline in burglaries in Denver, at least $40 million dollars in state tax revenue and almost 8,000 fewer marijuana-related arrests compared to 2010, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

A study by the American Civil Liberties Union has shown, frighteningly, that black Americans are up to eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white people, and legalization efforts have proved to be an important tool in combatting the incarceration of non-violent drug users. Many studies have also found that, despite legalization actions and talks amongst several states, teen alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use went down across the board in 2014.

Legalization works for America, yet amongst the narrowing field of Democratic candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders is the only candidate to stand in clear support of marijuana legalization. Sanders became the first major presidential candidate to call for an end to federal marijuana prohibition last week in remarks during his student town hall at George Mason University.

Former governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley has taken some steps to support decriminalization for small amounts of marijuana, but said he’s “not there yet” when asked whether he thought the federal government should take any steps toward legalization. In the first Democratic debate hosted by CNN on Oct. 13, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said she too is not “ready” to take a position on the issue yet, and wants the states to decide.

Things look a lot worse in the Republican field, however, with significantly more candidates admitting to having tried marijuana without consequence than actually standing in support of legalizing it or reducing the penalties for those not fortunate enough to get off scot-free. The closest any Republican candidate has come in terms of supporting legalization is saying, if elected, that they would not forcibly reverse or restrict state legalization efforts.

With presidential candidates looking to display strong, new leadership as well as distinctions from President Obama on both sides of the political aisle, marijuana legalization and drug law reform are important platform opportunities. More candidates need to drop the stigma around standing up for sensible drug policy, as current marijuana laws and their enforcement continue to destroy the lives and communities of many otherwise harmless drug users.


Bennett Cognato is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu.