What pot ballots mean for midterms

November 3, 2014

Tomorrow, the milquetoast slog of this year’s midterm election campaign will mercifully culminate at the ballot box. While it seems increasingly likely that Republicans will add control of the Senate to their authority over the House of Representatives, opinions differ as to the legislative impact such a result might have.

No matter the result, a jaded public expects little in the way of action, reflecting an increasing disconnect between the American citizenry and its elected officials. One way people are taking power back is via ballot initiatives, which allows the electorate to bypass political grandstanding and vote for policies directly. Ballotpedia counts 146 state-wide measures up for vote tomorrow, with topics ranging from abortion to education funding to gambling to guns to voting rights. Of these, none has drawn more attention–and shown a greater public/policy disconnect–than  initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia.

Tomorrow’s marijuana votes have implications far beyond how people in those three jurisdictions choose to relax on a Saturday night. John Hudak and Philip Wallach of the Brookings Institution see this year’s “marijuana midterms” as a gateway drug to broader voting on the issue during the 2016 general election.

Then there is the prospective impact on the criminal justice system. As this Reuters graphic shows, just under half of the U.S. federal prison population are incarcerated for drug-related crimes, a prison population that suffers from well-documented racial and ethnic disparities. Roughly one-fifth of all drug-related sentences are for marijuana; according to the United States Sentencing Commission (PDF), “In fiscal year 2013, there were 4,768 marijuana trafficking offenders, who accounted  for 21.5 percent of all offenders sentenced under the drug trafficking guidelines.” In September, Jacob Sullum wrote in Forbes that 758,000 were arrested for marijuana-related offences in 2011, noting that “nearly nine out of 10 marijuana arrests are for simple possession, a charge that typically does not result in a jail or prison sentence.” Recognizing an inherently flawed system, the U.S. Sentencing Commission put new sentencing guidelines into effect (PDF) over the weekend, including a retroactive clause that makes more than 46,000 drug offenders eligible for sentence reduction.

Last month Sullum, this time writing for Reason.com, noted that Gallup pegs the number of Americans who support marijuana legalization at 58 percent, while the number of Senators who support it sits at just 1 percent. It should be no surprise that a paltry 8 percent of likely U.S. voters think Congress is doing a good job.

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One comment

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It’s shameful that our public policy is still to lock human beings in cages because of a decision they made with their own bodies.

Posted by GregLoire | Report as abusive