Letters + Opinion » The Week in Weed

Spoiler Alert: The Popular Vote Doesn't Matter

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Nearly two out of three Americans now support the federal legalization of marijuana, according to a new Gallup poll.

That's a staggering number, especially considering just 12 percent of the nation's adults supported the concept the first time Gallup asked about it back in 1969. Today, 64 percent of Americans support legalization, including for the first time a majority — 51 percent — of Republicans.

To legalization enthusiasts — or just those who think prohibition is a hopelessly failed policy — this comes as good news. But it's also incredibly hard to square with the facts on the ground, which saw someone arrested on a cannabis charge in the United States, on average, every 48 seconds in 2016, according to an analysis of crime statistics by the Washington Post.

It's also hard to square with the relative inaction of Congress on the subject. Sure, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill — the Marijuana Justice Act — back in August to legalize marijuana federally, which came after Oregon Democrats Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced a trio of bills with the same aim in March. But no one seems to think those bills have any chance of moving through a committee, much less winding up on President Trump's desk.

Why the disconnect between public sentiment and public policy? It's hard to say but there are a number of possible culprits.

As we noted earlier this year ("Follow the Money," June 1), a report by New Frontier Data found that if the federal government legalized medical marijuana for ailments like chronic pain, seizures and anxiety, it could result in a more than $4 billion annual loss for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. That gives the pharmaceutical industry — which gave more than $30,000 to the average congressional candidate and spent more than $250 million in lobbying efforts in 2016, according to The Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org) — a pretty vested interest in the status quo.

There's also alcohol. Budweiser's former marketing chief Chris Burggraeve recently gave a fascinating interview to The Cannabist, talking in part about how he's ditched big beer to get into the marijuana game (insert this-bud's-for-you joke here). Jokes aside, Burggraeve said he thinks recreational weed is poised to rock the spirit industry, with reverberating impacts akin to the rise of craft beer. And there's reason to think he's not wrong. One study out of Colorado found that 27 percent of beer drinkers reported substituting pot for beer in the wake of legalization and estimated that national legalization could result in more than $2 billion in losses for the beer industry alone. And like Big Pharma, Big Liquor has lots of friends in D.C., with campaign contributions averaging $22,000 to senators and $17,000 to members of the House in 2016 alone, not to mention the roughly $24 million spent on lobbying that year, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.

We also can't completely ignore the gerrymandered districts in the House, which put the vast majority of our congressional representatives in rabidly liberal or conservative districts in which they simply pander to their bases of support. In this light, think of national polls on cannabis much like the popular vote tallies in last year's presidential election, with the reality in the House more closely resembling the electoral college.

So while there are, no doubt, many in Congress who legitimately want to see the reform of marijuana laws on a federal level, there are also many who either profit from the status quo (those campaign coffers don't fill themselves) and/or benefit from not angering their niche of constituents or by simply pandering to them (legalization is still probably a very tough sell in those reddest of districts and a nuanced policy debate can't possibly drum up support on either side of the aisle like an Obamacare repeal vote).

You could also make a very real argument that there are so many legitimate things bursting into figurative flames all over the country right now that cannabis legalization should rightfully take a back seat. No matter your view — or how excited those poll numbers might get you — you should know it's likely going to be a long while before we see any real federal movement toward rational marijuana laws.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.


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