Blog of Rights

Medical Marijuana: The Tipping Point

By Rebecca McCray, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project & Emma Andersson, Criminal Law Reform Project at 3:21pm

Two recent elections, a New York judge’s personal plea, a new state law and a new public opinion poll demonstrate that a seismic national shift has occurred in political attitudes toward medical marijuana. This cascade of developments dramatically illustrates just how far we’ve come since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and it indicates that our collective compassion is eroding the once-ironclad political will to deny an effective medicine to our sick fellow citizens.

In Oregon, retired Judge Ellen Rosenblum’s sweeping victory in the state’s primary election for Attorney General gave medical marijuana advocates reason to celebrate. While Rosenblum and her opponent, former federal prosecutor Dwight Holton, held similar views on consumer protection, civil rights and the environment, it was Rosenblum’s supportive stance on protecting the rights of medical marijuana patients that propelled her to victory. This race was the first of its kind: a statewide election in which the outcome was determined by the candidates’ respective stances on medical marijuana. Rosenblum’s position in support of medical marijuana helped her overcome both her campaign funding disadvantage and a gap in electoral support as late as three weeks before the election.  With no Republican nominee, Rosenblum is the presumptive winner of November’s general election.

Down in El Paso, Texas, congressional candidate Beto O’Rourke swept the Democratic primary, beating eight-term incumbent Silvestre Reyes. Reyes’ experience in office, legacy and presidential endorsement were no match for the support O’Rourke enjoyed as a result of having advocated for marijuana legalization. Reyes staunchly opposed the legalization of any drug – he ran an ad campaign against O’Rourke suggesting that “even our children” know better than to support legalization. El Paso voters know a thing or two as well, and they enthusiastically headed to the polls last week in support of O’Rourke and gave Reyes a pink slip.

Back in New York, political support for medical marijuana took an even more unlikely form: a civilly disobedient judge. Judge Gustin Reichbach, who has dedicated more than 40 years of his life to the law and is the midst of a painful battle with pancreatic cancer, came out and admitted in a New York Times editorial that his survival has hinged in large part on his illegal use of marijuana to treat his nausea, insomnia and lack of appetite. As Judge Reichbach explained, this is “not a law and order issue, [but] a medical and human rights issue.” For a man whose job it is to uphold the law, this highly public declaration is momentous. 

Meanwhile in Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a medical marijuana bill, making that state the 17th to permit its sick citizens access to an effective medicine. Medical marijuana is now legal in over one-third of our nation’s states.

All of this news marks an undeniable shift for an issue that can no longer be dismissed as “fringe.”  As these recent elections show, there’s now a real possibility that a politician’s opposition to medical marijuana or legalization can result in the loss of an election.  And if these outcomes weren’t enough, a recent survey revealed that more than two-thirds of Republicans and three-quarters of Democrats think the federal government shouldn’t interfere with state medical marijuana laws. In our hopelessly polarized political climate, this once unimaginable source of agreement is particularly telling. It is this level of bipartisan support, coupled with more victories for candidates like Rosenblum and O’Rourke, that will eventually result in the far-reaching and comprehensive medical marijuana reform across the country that will allow sick people access to their medicine.

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