In the race for Attorney General, marijuana prohibition loses in a landslide

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.

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    Well, I think you are reading into this what you want it to say. It is more likely that voters went for the Oregonian over the new arrival.

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        The 2008 race for attorney general actually included that distinction as part of the discussion. The new arrival won.

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    I will agree that Dwight's campaign was positioned too far to the right for a low-turnout Democratic primary. However, I also believe that Mr. Smith reads too much into this result as it relates to the whole state. Only 1/3 of Dems voted and Dems in turn represent only 1/3 of total votes. Ms. Rosenblum got only 8.5% of registered voters. How the broader electorate will respond to the case for an expansion of access to marijuana in Oregon remains to be seen.

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        Well if you Republicans had done your job and had a candidate or two that the winner of the Democratic primary would have to actually face in November then the result in the Dem primary might have been different. With no Republican opposition, most Dem voters lost interest in having a candidate who could beat Republicans in the fall allowing Mr. Smith's group to get undue influence.

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      People are discriminated against because of their consumption of marijuana: a substance with low social cost compared to alcohol, unhealthy foods, etc. If the government is going to regulate consumption habits, decisions should be based on empirical evidence. which overwhelmingly suggests that marijuana is actually kind of awesome.

      In addition, drug testing for marijuana should be illegal. Evidence suggests that the more competitive the athlete, the more likely they are to consume weed. Capitalists of the world should unite for taxing and allowing the use of marijuana! Don't hate...appreciate!

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    If prohibition or the war on drugs aren't your cup of tea, you must really loathe the Obama administrations position on the subject. Pretty near the polar opposite of "legalize it" or states rights.

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      ... and Mitt Romney would be end Prohibition? Look, if any one of us insisted on a candidate lining up with every single one of our personal opinions and viewpoints 100% of the time, we'd be left to write ourselves in on the ballot.

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    Holton's job was to uphold the law. The fact is that the medical marijuana law is NOT the same as removing prohibitions on the use of marijuana. If the voters in a general election voted to completely decriminalize marijuana, and Holton wanted to bring back prohibition, then your argument would be valid. But it's not. The medical marijuana law precariously divides users up between medical and recreational, and it was clearly his job to punish the recreational users (even the ones that clearly had no medical reason to use it but were attempting to hide behind a medical use license or had a license and were selling it to recreational users) whether you like it or not.

    Basically, Rosenblum used two partially dishonest fear tactics to scare Democrats into voting for her: the "outsider" argument and the "he's going to take your pot away and reject the voter approved medical use laws" argument. He never came out and said that he was going to do that, and the guy moved to Oregon and has lived here for years now. Score one for Rosenblum for using Rovian tactics almost as well as Master Rove himself.

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        I am very sorry for what you are going through, and for the additional stress caused to you by Holton.

        Just very, very sad.

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    While there's anecdotal evidence on this blog, I haven't seen any public opinion research to back it up. Alas.

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      You just saw the best form of public opinion polling, last night.

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        Actually, no.

        A vote is just that. Without deeper research, it's not really possible to conclude one dominating influence over another. Was it what's suggested by the poster? Maybe. How about Mr. Holton being from Virginia? Perhaps. How about any differences in advertising buys in various markets? Almost certainly. Or key endorsements? Somewhat.

        My point is that it's a confluence of factors, and I would like hard data before jumping to any conclusions about one being the dominant factor over others.

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          When you're in Texas and you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras.

          The group with the biggest megaphone in this election were the Medical Marijuana advocates.

          Holton was leading in polls and fundraising through early April before this became a factor and got slaughtered in polling, spending, and the election after.

          No, you really don't need polling to draw the reasonable conclusion that this was the deciding issue in the race, which is unfortunate because there were plenty of better reasons to vote for someone other than Holton -- few if any of them were actually raised in this campaign.

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          Judge Rosenblum and Dwight Holton had very similar positions on most issues. Yes, she hammered at him for being out-of-state, but this didn't work for Greg MacPherson against John Kroger in the previous AG race.

          Judge Rosenblum's campaign really took off when Holton called the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act a "train wreck." After Holton backtracked and claimed his support for the medical law, he then attacked Judge Rosenblum for making marijuana offenses a "low law enforcement priority."

          Unfortunately for Mr. Holton, treating marijuana as a low law enforcement priority is very popular by Democrats and is actually supported by a strong majority of all Oregonians. In December, the National Cannabis Coalition commissioned DHM Research to poll Oregonians' views on cannabis laws. Most telling is 68% of all Oregon voters and a whopping 84% of Democrats agreed that "Enforcing the marijuana laws is a waste of police time, resources, and jail space. We should focus police on more important priorities like violent crime."

          Holton continued to attack Judge Rosenblum and even ramped up his rhetoric over the last few days. Examining polls from Holton, Rosenblum and SurveyUSA, when compared to the election results, shows that late-deciders broke to Rosenblum. Obviously, their different marijuana policies dominated the race and the headlines.

          While the evidence is circumstantial and not definitive, I believe that the results and polling speak for themselves and we won't see many statewide Democratic candidates following Holton's lead. Clearly, Democrats favor sensible cannabis laws and certainly weren't turned off by Judge Rosenblum's vow to prioritize fighting serious and violent crime over cannabis cases.

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    A lot of my friends and people I respect supported Holton, but I could not get there, even though I wanted to. And it wasn't because he's from Virginia. I'm from Maryland myself.

    But I believe that marijuana prohibition in the US is a giant public policy failure, and that it is time to move to a more nuanced regulatory/taxing approach.

    As I said to a pro-Holton friend on election night after he used the phrase back door legalization with obvious distaste, "The only part of "back door legalization I don't like is the back door part."

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    We can endlessly argue about what Dwight Holton would have done in office, and we can further argue that there is no imperical evidence to indicate why voters overwhelmingly picked Rosenblum. Yet a clear fact is this: the messaging that Ellen has a more lenient view of the pot did not harm her in the least.

    How refreshing is this? We are voting for the most law and order race of all, and the individual who is perceived as LESS gung-ho is the winner.

    Almost full disclosure; I have had the privlege to meet both candidates and like them both very much. As I have said in previous posts, a campaign is about message, and the Rosenblum messaging worked.

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    The Barack Obama (in)Justice Dept. has conducted over 200 raids against state-legal medical-MJ dispensaries. And, at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Obama advocated for amping up the War on drugs and spending (wasting) even more money on it. And, just yesterday in Honduras, the US DEA participated in a War on Drugs assassination that killed four innocents, including two pregnant women (but this action might not have been possible if the Obama admin. had not supported the illegal coup in Honduras in 2009). Have fun voting for him in November!

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    And, oh yeah, before Bill Ryan jumps in here with a diatribe against "firebaggers": let it be known that Nancy Pelosi, herself, has been critical of Obama's anti-medical-MJ policies. So, Bill, call her a "firebagger", go ahead.

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      Yeah, and I am sure that Nancy Pelosi will cast her vote for Mitt Romney because he is soooo much more inclined to end Prohibition! I am sure Obama himself designed the failed DEA plan in Honduras, too. GEeez.

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        @Carla Hanson: Nancy ought to vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party for president, if she wants to vote to end prohibition. And Obama/Hillary Clinton did devise the support for the coup in Honduras, which if it hadn't happened the DEA wouldn't have been operating there.

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    Several people asked me for information on the AG election. When I explained the difference between Holton and Rosenblum on Cannabis prohibition, several responded, "that's all I need to know".

    People are fed up with money and lives being wasted on the drug war.

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    While I don't disagree with the majority of your piece, it is not accurate to say that Dwight Holton was endorsed by the "legal establishment." Ellen Rosenblum was endorsed by both former AGs Hardy Myers and Dave Frohnmayer. She had support from many lawyers, including numerous founding partners of major Portland firms. She was also strongly supported by women attorneys; the majority of past Oregon Women Lawyers Presidents openly supported her. Rosenblum has worked in this state for a long time, on a variety of community and legal issues and she is very well-known and widely respected. This race was about more than marijuana and you do Rosenblum a disservice by categorizing it this way.

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    Agree with Kate Wilkinson's comment. It's not all about marijuana. What has not been discussed are the endorsements Holton received from all these DAs and Sherrifs across the state. That clinched it for me not to vote for him. In addition, he was endorsed by Josh Marquis, the Mr. Death Penalty Clatsop DA, and Crime Victims United Steve Doyle (?spelling) who all are against revising Measure 11. The measure currently allows the DAs to act as judges in negotiating and deciding on pleas from accused individuals- too complicated to discuss here. In short, Holton came across as a hard-nosed "law & order" candidate while Rosenblum was perceived as a moderate judge who is familiar and comfortable with Oregon's traditions. Sorry, I did not want someone like Holton as my Attorney General.

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