Has Cannabis Become Bipartisan?

by Kohl Neal

In March of 2018, Cook County voters in Illinois showed support of legalizing cannabis on a non-binding referendum. 68 percent of Cook County voters said they support legalizing recreational cannabis. The vote only gauged support for legalization and didn’t affect any laws, but it follows the trend seen across the American populace: growing approval for cannabis and weed businesses in the mainstream.

The results in Chicago may not be surprising given it’s Democratic electorate, but in November’s election, statewide ballots in Illinois will ask if voters support legalization. Outside of Chicago, the Illinois electorate becomes much more moderate and conservative, which may hurt support of the referendum if the marijuana question splits down party lines. General wisdom says that cannabis is a partisan issue, with conservatives coming down hard on drug crimes, and liberals favoring legalization. But the general wisdom isn’t always so wise, and in this case, is not reflected in actual voters as much as party politicians.

Despite traditional stereotypes, liberals support cannabis and conservatives support prohibition, there is mounting evidence that cannabis is not a strictly partisan issue. Two recent gallup polls show record high support for legal cannabis at 64% among the American population, and a 51% majority of registered Republicans also favoring legalization to criminalization. That is the first time a majority of registered Republican have polled in support of legal cannabis. Major factions of the Republican party have also come out in support of legalization over the past year. Former Republican Speaker John Boehner has announced support of legalization, finding himself on the advisory board for a major cannabis cultivator.   Several deep red Sun Belt states are also rebelling against their political leadership in to show support cannabis and show legalization is in their interest. In Oklahoma voters legalized medical marijuana in June, approving the measure by 13 points and showing wide support for medical access to cannabis in a state that voted for Donald Trump by 36 points. Even in Texas the Republican party has endorsed decriminalization measures, and less prosecution of marijuana possession. For years Kentucky has profited from legal hemp crops, and voters there have shown wide support for medical cannabis. These factions of the Republican party, and their voters, seem to favor less regulation and robust economic industries over prohibition.

It seems that as more states legalize cannabis, and those legal markets operate within safe standards and restrictions while creating large revenue for the state and other public services from education to public safety, legal cannabis is being ushered a culture of mainstream acceptance. Much like same-sex marriage, piecemeal legalization through states show that this policy change will not end the world. It demonstrates more than just bipartisan benefits, but a more just social policy. And the longer conservative states wait before passing legalization, the more they miss out on the burgeoning economic market. Also the further they exacerbate the crisis of over-incarceration and overspend on the abusive War on Drugs.

But Republican leaders and hardliners still insist on the failed argument of the War on Drugs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled that he intends to crack down on legal state markets by revoking the Obama era Cole memo. And in Oklahoma the interests of voters who approved medical cannabis are being resisted by Republican Governor Mary Fallin and Oklahoma senators, who are trying to place emergency restrictions on the medical law that voters approved. Republican politicians are showing that they are generations behind on the conservative ideas of legalization, putting them in direct opposition to their voters.

Likewise, in Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has made a point to oppose cannabis legislation, even fighting against established law. After his election, Rauner sought to take apart Illinois’s Compassionate Care Act, disbanding the Marijuana Advisory board and setting up his own health department to add qualifying conditions to the law. That list of qualifying conditions has not been expanded since, except after the state was sued to add PTSD.

Despite the Governor’s efforts, cannabis is quickly becoming a present and popular issue in Illinois. Governor Rauner has found himself in an awkward position between withholding support to hold a party line and listening to the will of his voters. Three recent pieces of cannabis legislation have passed with bipartisan support, forcing Governor Rauner’s hand in signing them into law. Despite his attempts to limit access to medical cannabis, Rauner signed SB336 into law, allowing patients who would be prescribed opioids access to medical marijuana and removing background check restrictions. Vetoing the bill would have been highly unpopular among rural and suburban voters feeling the full-effect of America’s opioid epidemic. He also signed into law total legalization of hemp farming and cultivation, likely to be popular with the rural voters who make up Illinois’s booming agricultural industry. If recreational bills were to be passed, Rauner’s veto would block an even more profitable industry from coming to his state.

When it comes to the local level, general conservative opposition typically has more to do with access by children and intoxicated driving than a true belief in prohibition. Governor Rauner has characterized and stoked those fears, referring to successful legalization programs in California and Colorado as “experiments that are affecting lives, addiction and hurting young people.” But that kind of rhetoric can be countered with education on policies that have prevented underage use from increasing in states with recreational markets. Or the fact that Colorado and Washington have not seen an increase in traffic fatalities post-legalization. Suburban and rural support of legal cannabis is not an impossible goal, but to gain it advocates must reach out to those voters and educate them on why cannabis legalization won’t be harmful, and how it will help their own communities through economic windfall and expanded medical access.

The gubernatorial election only raises the stakes for cannabis. Despite signing cannabis bills into law, Governor Rauner still officially opposes legalization. Submitting to these reforms could be a sign that Rauner is seeing the demand for legal markets in his own state and among his voters, or just that he is feeling the heat of a tight gubernatorial election coming in November. Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker has already stated his support of recreational legalization, and ending the War on Drugs. Pritzker’s background in private business may be a warning sign for advocates looking to bring restorative justice programs and equity practices in with legal cannabis. But it may also be key in winning conservative voters over on the idea of business-friendly legalization. Either way, if the non-binding referendum passes with enough support in November, it will send a sure sign to whoever wins the Governor’s mansion on where their voters stand. And if it doesn’t pass cannabis legalization in Illinois will be a distant goal post.

Kohl Neal