The politics of pot

    Amsterdam. Prague. Berlin. Denver?

    Before I go any further, please take this time to get all those ‘Mile High’ jokes out of your system. Done? You sure? Have another second. There. It’s weed, America.

    Marijuana. Pot. Ganja. Jamaican Bacon. The source of every joke in all 283 minutes of the Harold and Kumar movies, and the source of the Frito-Lay corporation's dominance over the snack food market. Our past three presidents have admitted to using it, and so have the majority of the candidates for the GOP nomination in 2012 (including Mr. Morality himself, Rick Santorum). Oh, sure, those candidates oppose it now, but the very fact that they were willing to fess up in the first place shows the rapid changes in public opinion on the issue over the past few decades. Remember when Bill Clinton was so afraid to admit that he’d smoked that he resorted to the fact that he didn’t inhale? Now even Sarah Palin (remember her?) can talk openly about it without any repercussions from pretty much anyone. Even people who have never used marijuana in their lives have come out for looser restrictions, citing potential tax revenues and the fact that alcohol and tobacco do far more damage, physically, and in the case of alcohol, mentally.

    But until Tuesday, November 6, all of these changes were just cultural. That changed on Election Day, when voters in the states of Colorado and Washington went to the polls and voted to legalize marijuana. No medical excuses or any other caveats either – this was for plain old recreational purposes. Now, to be clear, legalization didn’t pass with a giant mandate from the public – it only garnered 55 percent of the vote in both states. But what was really interesting about weed’s wins on Tuesday was who helped put it over the line. The usual suspects – liberals and libertarians – played a very large part in organizing supporters and promoting their cause, but they found some surprising help from extreme conservatives as well.

    Enter Tom Tancredo. Tancredo, a former congressman from Colorado and candidate for governor on the American Constitution Party ticket (who, incidentally, received 37 percent of the vote; over three times more than the Republican nominee Dan Maes won) was most famous for an anti-immigration video from his 2008 presidential campaign that warned of Mexican-induced anarchy in the United States (link - NSFW). Yet this archconservative – a man who was to the far right in a field that included Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, and Mitt Romney (2008 culture warrior edition!), spoke loudly and proudly in favor of Colorado’s pro-marijuana Amendment 64.

    But was this just one loose cannon, or is there some legitimate support for legal pot within the right wing? I dug into the crosstabs of the Fox News exit poll in Colorado to find out, and what I found should be heartening to wake n’ bakers, (and people who don’t smoke but who still think criminalization is extreme - who themselves compose a much larger part of pro-decriminalization voters than the media tends to portray) all across America.

    Of Colorado voters over the age of 65, 32 percent voted yes. That number goes up to 51 percent for those 45-64, and skyrockets to 62 percent among the 30-44 demographic. Not only did three quarters of Democrats vote yes, but even a third of Republicans joined them. The support for legalization among younger Coloradans (for strictly impersonal reasons, I assume) means that the future for pot looks even brighter than the present.

    I looked at the Washington exit polls as well, and found similar data. The numbers are optimistic nationally as well, with a 2011 Gallup poll finding that for the first time ever, more Americans supported the legal use of cannabis than opposed it, by a margin of 4 percent. To put that in perspective, Barack Obama won the popular vote by 3 percentage points.

    So, how does this affect us here? Well, in the short run, not much (unless you live in Colorado or Washington, I suppose) - Illinois is a far cry politically from states in the west. But even here, laws are less strict than they've been in the past, although being found guilty of any sort of sale incurs a minimum of six months in prison as penalty. A poll taken in 2008 showed that 68 percent of Illinoisans would be in favor of medical marijuana, but bills have so far been unable to pass in the legislature. Hash, keef and the like are still completely banned, but public policy can only lag so far behind public opinion for so long, and there is a reasonably strong chance that as decriminalized cannabis for Illinoisans with medical licenses could soon become real, the laws surrounding recreational usage could loosen as well.

    California has more dispensaries than McDonald’s restaurants. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson often speaks of smoking marijuana from 2005-2008, joking that he “never exhaled.” And on Tuesday, the people of Colorado and Washington spoke for the right to toke (or at least for the right of others to do so without facing criminal charges). Whether or not the federal government chooses to override these new laws, the nation is set on course for a dramatic about-face in the way we treat marijuana. It’s impossible to tell exactly when we read the point of no return, but stoners, rest assured – America's getting closer.

    Brace yourself, White Castle. Legalization is coming.


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