The changing political realities of drug policy

March 7, 2018

At my talk on Saturday, I mentioned the local political dust-up I got caught in back in 2004 (some of the regulars here may remember this – Link).

There was a Congressional representative in my area in Illinois with a particularly nasty record in drug policy, and he was being opposed by a candidate who had indicated possible support for medical marijuana and decriminalization (not legalization). At the time, that was a pretty good change, and so I endorsed the challenger on Drug WarRant. Thought nothing of it.

The incumbent used my endorsement in attack ads, claiming that the challenger was endorsed by a drug legalization “group” and had values completely out of touch with Illinois. The challenger returned my small personal donation to his campaign and said the endorsement was similar to when the Ku Klux Klan endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980!

Now flash ahead 14 years…

Tom Angell reports: The New Politics Of Marijuana Are Emerging In Illinois

Marijuana was once seen as a third-rail issue of politics: You touch it, you die. Not that many years ago, many candidates for public office ran as far and as fast as they could from cannabis issues out of fear they would be attacked as soft on drugs or soft on crime. […]

Contenders in the March 20 primary got into a testy Twitter exchange on the issue over the weekend, with JB Pritzker, widely seen as the front-runner in the race, accusing opponent Chris Kennedy of merely pretending to back legalization, and Kennedy telling his supporters not to believe the other campaign’s claims.

As Tom notes, part of the sudden desire for politicians to suddenly get on top of legalization could have a little bit to do with polling numbers.

New Illinois poll results released yesterday:

The poll found that 66 percent of Illinois voters favor legalizing recreational marijuana if taxed and regulated like alcohol while 32 percent are opposed. There were 3 percent of voters who were unsure.

Back in 2004, when I ran into those problems, the national Gallup poll numbers (don’t have them for Illinois at the time) were 64% opposed, 34% in favor.

A different time.

It’s really interesting to see some of the campaigns this year in Illinois. For example, we’re finally losing Lisa Madigan and Attorney General (long overdue – she’s the one who spearheaded the execrable Illinois v. Caballes case where the Supreme Court ruled that the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply as long as the police get permission… from their dog.)

So the race is crowded (6 on the Democratic side) and they’re all pretty much an improvement. This one, for example is a real breath of fresh air in an Attorney General race – it’s Aaron Goldstein, a former Public Defender!

For far too long our criminal justice system has not been just to people accused of crimes, to the victims of crime and to the public. I will accomplish real criminal justice reform that ends mass incarceration, eliminate the unjust and unfair drug war, and reform the cash bail process that discriminates against people with limited means. I will accomplish real, long overdue, police reform to ensure that police represent (rather than intimidate) the good citizens of our state.

Mass incarceration benefits no one. Many of the people who are in prison are serving their sentence for a non-violent, typically drug-related offense. We must treat the root causes of these crimes like drug addiction, mental health, income inequality, a lack of opportunity and education funding.. Someone who is incarcerated for a non-violent offense comes out of prison not rehabilitated, but with a record and even more likely to fall back into criminal behavior than before. Meanwhile, taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to house inmates while feeling no safer than they were before. We must reduce the prison population by focusing on deferment programs, rehabilitation, and mental health and addiction treatment.

The so-called “drug war” has been one of the worst domestic policies in the last 50 years. We have not reduced the use of drugs while creating a black market that funds street gangs so that they can purchase guns. Further, the drug war has been administered in a way that discriminates against African-Americans, Latinos and the poor. We must legalize marijuana and treat drug addiction as a mental health issue and not a criminal one.

And he repeats his commitment to marijuana legalization:

I believe marijuana should be legalized. One doesn’t have to be a user of marijuana to understand that the war on drugs—and the criminalization of marijuana in particular—has been an abysmal failure. Far too many of our citizens have been convicted and imprisoned for using marijuana, although little evidence exists to support our draconian drug laws.

Ironically, rather than helping our citizens, criminalization of marijuana has encouraged the development of a huge and chaotic black market, with its inevitable consequences of gang violence and harm to many innocent bystanders. For these reasons, and based on the experience of other states that have legalized marijuana, I believe it is time to legalize marijuana in Illinois. It should be regulated—based on clear scientific evidence—to ensure that legal pot does not create any significant health or public safety risks to the people of Illinois and that the marijuana industry is run fairly and lawfully.

As Attorney General, I will consult with attorneys general from states that have legalized marijuana to ensure that Illinois adopts best practices in the production, distribution and sales of marijuana, and that any tax revenue Illinois derives from the sale of marijuana is used for purposes that benefit all the people, not just the few who are politically connected.

What a breath of fresh air. I don’t know what his chances are, but the fact that people like him are running makes me feel just a touch more optimistic.

And no, just to be on the safe side, I’m not endorsing him.

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Pete Guither is the editor of


March 2018
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