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Why Do Democrats Defend the Drug War?

Submitted by smorgan on

The rank hypocrisy of Obama's position on pot has been amplified rather dramatically by last week's revelation that he literally smoked more than his share of it back in high school. It's an important conversation to have, but I think this analysis by Paul Waldman in The American Prospect lands a little off the mark.

At the moment, there remains a strong incentive to support the status quo, lest you be targeted in your next race as some kind of hippie-lover. The incentives on the other side, on the other hand, are almost nil. When was the last time somebody lost a race for being too tough on drugs? The half of Americans who favor marijuana legalization are not an organized voting bloc that gets together to punish its opponents at the polls.

This is almost the opposite of what I've been saying lately, given that in just the past month, two different well-connected democratic candidates have collapsed under the weight of their unpopular drug war posturing. First, Oregon voters roundly rejected Dwight Holton in an attorney general race that focused heavily on his opposition to medical marijuana. Then, just yesterday in Texas, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes lost the congressional seat he's held since 1996 in a primary challenge from outspoken drug policy reformer Beto O'Rourke.

Really, the whole notion that candidates who support reform will be labeled as "hippie-lovers," is nothing more than a fictitious cliché without a single good example to justify its utterance. Instead, we're witnessing the emergence of the exact opposite, a new dynamic in democratic races wherein a history of defending the drug war is a political liability that can be exploited to powerful effect by candidates who side with the majority of voters in favoring reform.

That's why it's so frustrating to see observers like Waldman, who supports reforming drug policy, nevertheless endeavor to uphold the notion that political realities require our leaders to do the wrong thing. If Obama were to read that analysis and find it convincing, Waldman would have succeeded in helping the President rationalize his refusal to support reform. We're hurting our cause when we say stuff like this, and worse yet, the idea itself isn't even true.

The truth is that a majority of voters actually do want the President to stop waging war on marijuana. It isn't in any politician's political interest to ignore public opinion while defending bad public policy. The smart play is to steer into the changing political current, just as Obama did with gay marriage, and the result is that public opinion itself begins to change that much faster. This is what's known as leadership, and when it comes to reforming our horrible drug laws, our politicians have everything to gain by speaking up and speaking out.

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