By Adam Smith of Portland, Oregon. Adam's writing on drug policy has appeared in dozens of publications. He is currently one of the directors of Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement.
Dwight Holton’s campaign for Oregon Attorney General featured a powerful political team, outstanding family and national connections, and the support of the bulk of Oregon’s progressive political machine. But a late poll that showed undecided Democrats breaking against him en masse shocked everybody. They should have seen it coming.
Over the past month, Oregon’s progressive establishment watched, first bemused and then bewildered, as activists, led by Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement, turned the AG’s race into a referendum on marijuana policy. When the push began, Holton dismissed it. But ultimately even Holton’s campaign had to admit that it had become the campaign’s defining issue.
Last year, Holton joined a number of US Attorneys around the country who used their discretion, and our tax dollars, to go after people operating under state medical marijuana laws. Limited resources dictate that any case pursued by a US Attorney is inevitably a decision NOT to pursue some other violation of federal law. As the first of those US Attorneys to run for elective office, Holton discovered just how little Democratic voters thought of that decision.
Then, when Rosenblum called marijuana enforcement “a low priority” Holton doubled down on prohibition.
Dwight Holton lost in a landslide because when the question was put to Democrats, they simply could not identify with someone who still believes that marijuana prohibition is a smart priority for law enforcement. In fact, nearly 70 percent of Oregon Dems believe marijuana should be legal, as do the large majority of Democrats nationally, and, according to Gallup, a majority of Americans overall.
Like alcohol prohibition before it, marijuana prohibition has been an exorbitantly expensive, racist, counterproductive public policy. The results of the Oregon AG race may have taken some by surprise, but the scope and intensity of Democratic opposition to prohibition, and support for broader criminal justice reform is growing fast. Marijuana policy, which ensnares so many vulnerable people in a broken system, is its leading edge.
We arrest more than 800,000 people every year in the US for low-level marijuana possession. Those targeted for enforcement are mostly young and poor, and disproportionately people of color. Under prohibition, the US incarcerates more of its citizens than any nation on earth, has shredded the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and instituted sentencing schemes that are the very definition of cruel and unusual.
These are not Democratic values.
Prohibition has turned international drug cartels into armies capable of disrupting nations, and aligned them with street gangs in American cities. It has forged huge swaths of global corruption through both the private and public sectors, and wreaked havoc on the rule of law and public health.
And those are just the highlights. The situation in Latin America has deteriorated so precipitously that a growing list of current and former Latin American Presidents have begun calling on the US to end prohibition, starting with marijuana, before it destroys democracy in the hemisphere.
It is no longer acceptable for our leaders to remain complicit in this disaster.
The Millennial Generation, those progressive supporters of choice, gay marriage, universal health care, and a positive role for government in the economy, are a significant component of the Democratic Party’s plan for long-term electoral success. They are also overwhelmingly opposed to prohibition. And with a tectonic shift on the issue underway in Latin America, we can expect Latino voters, that other great demographic hope of the party, to continue to ramp up demands for real reform.
Initiatives to end marijuana prohibition have already qualified for the 2012 ballot in Washington and Colorado. In both states, the Democratic Party has done the right and smart thing by endorsing legalization.
Oregon voters are likely to decide at least one legalization initiative in November as well. Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement’s measure will eliminate penalties for adults who grow or possess marijuana for personal use, as long they’re not harming or endangering others. Simple. One hopes that the state’s progressive and Democratic leadership will take this issue as seriously as their constituents.
Ellen Rosenblum’s landslide victory over an opponent who hitched his wagon to prohibition is a turning point for Oregon, and is already reverberating nationally. It puts Democratic candidates and their fellow travelers in the progressive political world on notice. Voters want to know where you stand on marijuana prohibition. The status quo has become untenable.
As of today, we begin demanding leaders who understand that.