Say what you will about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but the guy sticks to his principles. How else do you explain his decision to rescind an Obama administration policy that had directed the Department of Justice to essentially tolerate marijuana where it was legal under state law?
It’s hard to see how the Trump administration or the Republican Party will benefit from the move. Legalizing marijuana gets more popular with each passing year. A Gallup poll in October found that 64 percent of American adults—and 51 percent of Republicans—support legalization. That doesn’t mean support is so strong among actual voters, but even there the trend is promising. A national Quinnipiac poll in April found that 60 percent of voters favored legalization. A May poll focusing just on likely voters in Michigan—a state Trump won—found 58 percent support for legalization.
Meanwhile, weed opponents’ warnings about the perils of legalization look increasingly overblown. In Colorado, the rate of teen marijuana usage has plummeted since the drug became legal in 2014—along with teen usage of alcohol, tobacco, and heroin.
In sum, Americans look pretty damn ready to finally legalize weed. But Sessions, who infamously once said he thought the Ku Klux Klan “were okay until I found out they smoked pot,” is stuck in a “Reefer Madness” world. This gives Democrats an incredible opportunity in 2018 and, especially, in 2020. It was a mistake for Hillary Clinton not to run on a “legalize it” platform, as Bernie Sanders advocated. Legalizing (or at least decriminalizing) weed isn’t the number one issue for very many voters, but it’s exactly the type of position that could have motivated young people while uniting libertarians, green party lefties, and black and Hispanic voters. It’s the rare issue that can be cast simultaneously as a blow for racial justice—blacks and Hispanics disproportionately suffer from marijuana arrests—and, via medical marijuana expansion, as a way to confront the opioid epidemic raging through white working-class communities.
In thinking about this issue, I have sometimes worried that Trump, running for reelection, would neutralize his Democratic opponent’s advantage by embracing marijuana legalization himself. So, while the prospect—still up in the air—of federal prosecutors cracking down on legal weed is frightening, it also, weirdly, brings a measure of relief. Sessions’s move has officially tied the Trump administration to an unpopular, reactionary position on marijuana. Now it’s Democrats’ job to make Trump and Republicans pay.
The good news is that the party seems to be waking up to that fact. Even Phil Murphy and Ralph Northam, the seemingly milquetoast new governors of New Jersey and Virginia, promised as candidates to legalize or decriminalize marijuana. (Murphy even named the head of a marijuana trade group as his chief of staff.) As the 2018 midterm races start heating up, we’ll see how many other Democrats follow their lead.