The President is opposed to legalizing marijuana. He's said so himself, and that's not likely to change without a fight. But the fight is on. Amidst mounting evidence that democrats can benefit from warming up to legalization, a new political calculus appears to be taking hold.
Democratic strategists are studying a California marijuana-legalization initiative to see if similar ballot measures could energize young, liberal voters in swing states for the 2012 presidential election.
Some pollsters and party officials say Democratic candidates in California are benefiting from a surge in enthusiasm among young voters eager to back Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana in certain quantities and permit local governments to regulate and tax it.
Party strategists and marijuana-legalization advocates are discussing whether to push for similar ballot questions in 2012 in Colorado and Nevada—both expected to be crucial to President Barack Obama's re-election—and Washington state, which will have races for governor and seats in both houses of Congress. [Wall Street Journal]
There's a strong case to be made that democrats can mobilize the marijuana vote in their favor. But in order for it to work, President Obama absolutely must shield Prop 19 from federal interference if it passes in November. Think about it: if DEA is busy waging war on the will of voters in California with the President's blessing, it will cast a huge shadow over any subsequent effort to reform marijuana policies in Nevada and Colorado. Legalization initiatives in those states could indeed produce a heavy turnout of young voters, but Obama can't cash in on those votes if he's made himself an enemy of their cause.
In the event that Prop 19 passes, Obama will have no choice but to take a position well in advance of the 2012 election. He can either order the drug war army to stand down and allow legalization to take hold, or he can authorize the DEA to intervene and accept responsibility for the raids and riots that would surely follow. There's really no middle ground here, because any federal interference whatsoever will be regarded as a massive declaration of war. DEA's harassment and prosecution of medical marijuana providers has provoked no shortage of public outrage, even though the vast majority of operators have been left alone. Everyone will be watching, and Obama's first move will be perceived as a definitive indication of what his intentions are.
History tells us that politicians will almost invariably bend over backwards to defend prohibition, but that tendency is born out of the political presumption that there's a price to be paid for getting pinned with the so-called "soft-on-drugs" label. In Obama's case, those calculations will have to be thoroughly re-examined as the growing movement for marijuana reform penetrates far too deeply into his support base to be ignored, or worse, offended. A win for Prop 19 will provoke tremendous excitement among a majority of Obama's supporters and, if he has any sense at all, he'll be awfully hesitant to throw cold water on an event of such historic and emotional significance to the same people who put him in power.
It's anyone's guess how Obama will handle the marijuana issue in the years to come, but there's no question we've entered into a political climate that requires some significant deviation from the standard script. The old approach of scare tactics and propaganda won't work this time around, and he knows it. With or without a victory for Prop 19, the legalization of marijuana will be a leading issue in the 2012 presidential election and Obama would be wise to begin developing a more thoughtful position than what we've seen from him thus far.
For more, Chris Weigant has a good piece in The Huffington Post that makes a lot of similar points. I noticed it only after writing most of this and I generally agree with his analysis.