Six states plus DC included referendums or initiatives on their 2020 ballots that would liberalize drug laws. Mississippi’s Measure 1B would legalize medical marijuana. Arizona, Montana, and New Jersey, had ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana. South Dakota was given both choices: Amendment A to legalize recreational marijuana, and Measure 26 to legalize medical marijuana. Going even further in an attempt to end the disastrous war on drugs, Washington DC’s Initiative 81 decriminalized plant and fungi-based psychedelics, while Oregon’s Measure 110 decriminalized all drugs and directed new revenue towards drug addiction treatment.
Every single one of these measures passed. But based on election results as they stand at the time of writing, they didn’t just win, they won big. In South Dakota, which hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 56 years, the majority of voters approved both medical and recreational marijuana. Excluding DC, all six of these politically diverse states supported drug reform measures by a larger margin than they supported Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
As the figure above illustrates, drug liberalization measures won regardless of whether they were in Trump states (MS, MT, and SD) or Biden states (AZ, DC, NJ, and OR). Averaging these seven races, drug liberalization measures outperformed Joe Biden by an average of 10.7 points in 2020. Their outperformance would be significantly higher if not for DC: as the most Democratic body in the Electoral College, it was the only place where Joe Biden outperformed the major drug liberalization measure that he appeared on the ballot with. If one excluded DC and looked only at the six states, the average outperformance would shoot up to 15.1 points.
These results, astonishing in themselves, are all the more fascinating when one considers how they run contrary to a number of different narratives about the 2020 elections.
First and foremost, these results complicate a narrative of the Biden campaign itself: in trying to play it safe through a moderate policy on marijuana, Biden is undermining his own support among a public who’d like to see him be more radical on this issue. As of late 2019, marijuana legalization was supported by 69% of the American public. That support isn’t concentrated in one segment of the population either: support among baby boomers now sits at 63%, while support among Republican-leaning voters sits at 55%. In other words, legalizing weed is backed by the majority of both Democratic and Republican voters but neither of the political parties (as a whole).
While going beyond prior Democratic administrations by campaigning on “[d]ecriminalizing the use of cannabis and automatically expung[ing] all prior cannabis use convictions,” the Biden campaign has consistently shied away from the idea of a federal legalization of marijuana. His campaign has suggested that this is out of concern about “public health” until more research emerges.
It is true that the prohibition on marijuana has slowed medical research into its effects, but there is already a convincing body of research which has tried to comparatively measure the public health and safety consequences of different forms of drug use. Each has found that marijuana use has less severe effects than other illegal drugs, and those which have checked also found it less harmful than tobacco and alcohol use. Research suggests marijuana smoke is less harmful to the lungs than tobacco smoke is, and other studies have noted marijuana’s virtually nonexistent overdose potential. All of this is before taking into account the destructive public health consequences of mass incarceration, a status quo problem which marijuana prohibition directly contributes to.
More likely is that Biden’s hesitancy to fully embrace legalized weed is a combination of political strategy and his old personal views dying hard. He has been on the record against marijuana legalization since at least 1972, and has spent much of his career as a major architect of the war on drugs. In 2008, he passed a Senate resolution honoring the 35th anniversary of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The resolution praised the agency for seizing over 2.3 million kilograms of marijuana since 2000, which along with many other drugs enabled the agency to have “made over 240,000 arrests” in that time. Biden, who has spent much of his political career cautiously adopting positions in accordance with the calculus of a given moment, has only evolved on this issue to the extent he has due to the changing political pressures of the larger Democratic coalition.
Having built his career in an era where fearmongering about drugs was the politically safe move to make, new times have led Biden to now view decriminalization as a safe position that, by not going as far as full legalization, will avoid any backlash against him for going too far to the left. This year’s election results illustrate that this carefully-triangulated position likely actually puts Biden to the right of the American electorate, thus perhaps losing him votes by failing to embrace a position with popular support. Indeed, legalization is especially popular among young voters that the Democratic Party often struggles to turn out. Anecdotally, most young people in America know at least one other young person who is either right-wing or generally apathetic, but who does care about legalizing weed.
Attaching a national campaign to an issue which outperforms the campaign all over the country is seemingly sound political advice. But in this case, the opportunity has been passed up due to a stubborn insistence upon moderation even when unpopular. This is an issue-based example of a larger phenomenon in which party establishments promote moderates within their ranks even when there is no electoral advantage to doing so, just on pure ideological preference alone.
While marijuana policy is likely to change over time, this is something of a running theme in American politics: an elite, “responsible” bipartisan consensus emerges which is separate from the actual public consensus on the issue. Unity, divided. This counterintuitive dynamic has multiple causes: the measurable tendency of politicians to view their constituents as more conservative than they actually are, the influence of campaign contributions from a donor class not ideologically representative of the public, political distortions created by America’s anti-majoritarian institutions, and so on.
It should be noted that the Biden campaign’s official excuse of waiting on additional research gives him cover to come out in favor of full legalization later down the line (similar to how Obama supported only same-sex civil unions in his 2008 campaign and then came out in favor of full same-sex marriage four years later). As such, the Biden administration has room to further “evolve” on this issue, especially as support in congress continues to grow and progressive Democrats continue to press the issue.
But while this year’s drug initiatives may reveal some of the general problems of American politics, there’s also many respects in which the issue is unique. Ever since the racist, tycoon-backed efforts to criminalize marijuana succeeded in 1937, popular support has been on the side of a tough approach to drugs. In 1969, only 12% of Americans supported legalizing weed, with 84% against. It was this public opinion environment which helped produce the draconian “war on drugs” laws of the 1970’s-1990’s.
Over the last 15 years, however, public opinion has changed fast. Growing recognition of both the war on drugs’ failure to accomplish its goal and the calamitous consequences of mass incarceration have sparked new thinking about drug policy. At the same time, early experiments on the state level in places like Colorado have illustrated that marijuana legalization is not just feasible, but beneficial as well. As the idea has moved from hippie fantasy to reasonable reform, support for legalization steadily grew from 36% in 2005 to 67% today.
The public’s newfound openness to marijuana legalization continues to crystallize, and with it, new interest groups will begin investing their efforts into the issue: business interests will put political power behind this emerging profitable industry (with more success than present efforts, presumably), and more and more elderly voters will likely continue to open up to the drug as its medical benefits are further developed. John Boehner, the former Republican Speaker of the House who has since reversed his opposition to legalization and chairs the National Cannabis Roundtable, notes: “When cannabis is on the ballot, it wins. Even with hyper-partisanship everywhere else, people of all stripes agree about cannabis reform.” (Progressives, of course, should remain wary of this corporate entry into the issue, and especially the ways some state legalization laws create monopolies in the industry).
It is possible that legalizing marijuana as an issue is on a path reminiscent of the same-sex marriage issue: overwhelming opposition slowly gives way to a changing culture, state-level proofs of concept, and the shifting priorities of major power blocs until popular support hits a critical level where the position switches from being something only progressive Democrats support to something the entire Democratic party supports. It likely won’t be settled federally in the courts, but the prospects for national legalization in the next several decades seem very promising.
These shifts in opinion are not limited to coastal metropolitans and college towns, but appear to be truly nationwide. The point bears repeating: a policy position which Joe Biden considered too radical for his election pitch has majority support in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota. The politics of such places hold lots of surprises. I’ve long made the argument that some of the most genuinely socialist programs in America are in deeply conservative states, where they enjoy wide support. These states’ embrace of drug reform cast doubt upon frequent post-election complaints from certain liberal commentators that “red state” America is so exclusively motivated by cultural grievance as to be worth abandoning in electoral political struggles (to say nothing of some more dehumanizing arguments made regarding the disposability of these populations themselves).
Against the vision of these areas as static conservative strongholds devoid of any progressive potential, we can actually watch opinion shift in these states in real time. In 2016, a legal marijuana initiative lost in Arizona by 2.6 points; the passage of this year’s proposal represents a 13.2 point increase in support in just four years. An initiative in North Dakota that would legalize weed and automatically expunge marijuana charges lost by 18.9 points in 2018; just two years later, their neighbors in South Dakota passed the same policy minus automatic expungement by 18.6 points. Different proposals in different states, but a 37.5 point gap over two years in otherwise similar neighboring states suggests something’s happening.
Perhaps the policies in these states may have benefitted from a lack of negative partisanship, meaning voters are more likely to support policies which aren’t associated with a political party they dislike. That would mean that the Democratic Party’s failure to embrace this issue may have helped these measures pass in Republican states, even if it hurt the Democrats’ performance. There may well be an element of truth to this, but its impact is unlikely to be so large that it’s a decisive element. A critic might also argue that it was increased turnout in these red states that made these results possible, not changes in opinion within the electorate. However, increases in turnout over 2016 were generally only a couple points in each of these states, and in Mississippi turnout actually fell. Overall, this year’s drug reform results serve as significant evidence that deeply conservative “red states” can be moved to the left on policy issues.
Whether these developments extend to other areas of drug policy is unknown, but the results in Oregon and DC show reason for optimism. Polling does too: in 2018, 75% of Americans recognized that the US government was losing its “war on drugs,” with only 9% believing we’re winning. There seems to be a growing recognition among the American public that our present approach to drug abuse — throwing thousands of people, mostly black and brown, into the harsh US justice system to serve absurd sentences in run-down, overcrowded prisons — has been an immense failure. Thankfully, drug reformers have been putting increased focus on drug policy issues besides just marijuana, and they will hopefully be able to convince Americans of the ways in which our current strategy is counterproductive, racist, costly, and unhealthy when compared to more liberalized, rehabilitative approaches.