Suddenly, signs of fall are popping up everywhere. Trees are starting to blaze red and orange; sweaters are making their annual migration out of their summer hideaways; and political ads are stacked back-to-back in every commercial break on TV.
While candidates scramble to differentiate themselves from their opponents, there’s one item that almost all of them seem to agree on, across party lines and at every level of government: it is too politically risky to endorse the legalization of cannabis. (Voters take note: Shenna Bellows and Diane Russell are two remarkable exceptions to this rule, as are the 13 Independent Green Party candidates.)
One might think that, given the public’s rapidly-evolving acceptance of marijuana for medical and adult recreational use, a savvy politician would embrace the issue as a way to connect with thousands of Maine voters.
But that would be to ignore some important realities, both social and political. First, cannabis is not a top-tier concern for most Mainers. When candidates go door-to-door, asking voters what issues are important to them, they hear “jobs” and “the economy” again and again. “Cannabis,” not so much—despite the fact that a regulated, legal cannabis and hemp industry would create jobs and buoy our struggling economy.
Also, when candidates do hear about marijuana, it’s as likely to be from an opponent as a supporter. There is still plenty of local resistance to the idea of regulating the plant here in Maine—WCM experienced it four years ago while hunting for receptive municipalities to site our dispensaries; the York city council recently refused to put the adult-use question before their voters, a decision which has survived one appeal thus far. Maine’s arm of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) is building a network of supporters to paint legal, regulated adult use of cannabis in the most ghoulish Halloween colors. While such resistance may come from an entrenched “old guard” that is fearful of change, candidates know that these officials and organizations are influencers in their communities.
In a competitive election cycle, then, cannabis is just too risky for most candidates to embrace. On the one hand, endorsing legalization will win them an unknown number of supporters, many of whom appear to care more about other issues. On the other hand, a pro-legalization stance will give ammunition to opponents who will use entrenched fears and stereotypes about cannabis and cannabis users against them. In tight races, such as this year’s gubernatorial contest, the perceived risk is too great, the possible reward not at all assured.
This is not to say that legalization won’t succeed, or that politicians don’t support the concept. In fact, the Maine Democratic Party this year added support for legalization to its platform, and the Legislature may find the collective will to pass an adult use bill on to voters in 2015. But for almost every individual politician, and especially those campaigning for election or re-election this term, the safest approach to marijuana seems likely to remain, “I will work to uphold the will of my constituents.”