The Minnesota DFL is making legalization of marijuana a 2020 election issue. Gov. Tim Walz has instructed his agencies to prepare for it, and Democrats are kicking off a statewide listening tour to tout legalization’s benefits. Does such a strategy make political sense or are the Democrats high?
From a public policy perspective, the current criminalization “war on drugs” has failed. I argued that in a Texas Tech Law Review article 26 years ago, well before it was fashionable to advocate for legalization. The current criminalization approach has failed to stop drug usage, imposed racially arbitrary sentences, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars in government enforcement and lost personal freedom and productivity due to incarceration.
Maybe for some, usage of marijuana is a matter of personal freedom to use a harmless drug. However, as we have seen with the opioid crisis and some research on prolonged use of marijuana, use of any drugs ought also to be viewed as a public health issue with the question being: What is the best way to regulate a specific drug to address its real or potential health issues? Criminalization has failed with marijuana, and legalization of some sort is the answer. From a public-policy perspective, the question is what type of legalization.
The DFL sees the time as now
But policy change requires political opportunity. The DFL sees the time as now to advocate for it, despite the fact that the Republican state Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has said legalization will not happen next year. So if legalization is dead next year, why push it?
There are several reasons. The first is polling data that suggest 64% of those surveyed by Gallup favor legalization, including in Midwest states such as Minnesota. However, what legalization means varies by person. A Mason-Dixon poll found recreational legalization support only at 37%. Neither poll indicated that recreational legalization was a top issue for many voters. Thus, while it appears that there is majority support for legalization, it is less clear that recreational use is a top political or policy priority for a large percentage of the voters.
Minnesota DFLers may be hoping that supporting marijuana legalization is the 2020 equivalent of the 2012 marriage amendment. In that year the Republicans placed on the ballot a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. The theory was that support for the amendment would be so strong that it would help the GOP maintain control of the state Legislature and win Minnesota for presidential candidate Mitt Romney by energizing the party base. It backfired. Instead, it energized the DFL, especially young voters, and it resulted in flipping the Legislature to Democrats, who in 2013 legalized same-sex marriages in the state.
The 2018 numbers
More specifically, though, Democrats may be reading numbers from the 2018 election. That year two pro-legalization parties in Minnesota qualified for major party status. In the race for state auditor, the Legalize Marijuana Now Party received 133,913 votes, whereas in the race for attorney general, Grassroots Legalize Cannabis received 145,748, or 5.28% and 5.71% of the statewide vote for those offices respectively. In running for office, the two pro-legalization parties opted not to run against each other to prevent splitting of votes. This is important because one can argue that those who voted for one of the pro-legalization parties are those who view the issue as their top priority. This means not that 10% of the voters supported pro-legalization parties, but something around 5-6% of those casting votes in either the state auditor or attorney general races.
The Minnesota secretary of state indicated that 2,611, 365 individuals cast ballots in 2018. Assume that the 145,748 Grassroots Legalize Cannabis vote is a fair estimate of those who support legalization as a primary or top issue. This works out to 5.58% who voted for a pro-legalization party. In the counties of Hennepin, Ramsey, and St. Louis, 31,976, 14,720, and 5,471 respectively voted for a pro-legalization party or candidate. In total, these three counties constituted 62,167 or 42.7% of the pro-legalization vote in the state. The other 56.3% was clumped in urban areas or college-town areas, with thin support in more rural areas. Even in suburbs, support was less. For the attorney general’s race, in Edina and Eden Prairie — two typical and more affluent suburbs that might be likely to support legalization — 2,462 out of 62,523 voters or 3.94% of the voters went for the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party.
Geographical support is clumped
What do all these statistics suggest? Perhaps they underestimate support for recreational legalization as a top priority. But they do indicate a small percentage of the population cares about the issue and the DFL feels it cannot ignore it. Failure to support legalization may mean more voters drift away from the party, making it harder to pick up a Senate majority or mobilize voters for statewide races. Yet the geographic distribution of support for legalization is clumped, strongest in areas where the DFL are already strong. Moreover, if the race for control of the state, especially the Legislature, goes through the suburbs, especially with suburban women, it is not clear that a strong legalization approach makes sense. In talks I have given, when legalization is raised, many suburban women exclaim, “Another thing I have to protect my children from.”
Perhaps marijuana legalization will do the same in 2020, mobilizing young voters to come out and vote. Or perhaps it will alienate suburban (female) voters, or lead to a countermobilization by the GOP, which is already motivated to come out to support Donald Trump. This is the gamble the DFL is taking going into the 2020 elections in its advocacy for recreational marijuana.
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