Early Returns

Why No One Is Taking On Pot Legalization

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Raising the issue.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Why don't more politicians attempt to make marijuana legalization a national issue?

Harry Enten over at FiveThirtyEight looked at the polling last week and wondered about it. And the numbers are impressive. As he reports, almost two-thirds of Americans backed legalization in one recent poll, and while Democrats are somewhat more likely to favor it, the gap between the parties is unusually small for a policy question. Enten suspects that a big reason no politician has taken it up as a national issue is that they just haven't caught up with the rapidly moving shift in public opinion.

That's possible. But I can think of some other reasons.

Unlike the seemingly comparable issue of same-sex marriage, there's really no intense organized interest group pushing for legalization. Politicians sometimes go out looking for an issue to champion, but more often they respond to organized groups, especially among their constituents. It doesn't help, either, that support for the policy is unlikely to be concentrated geographically, which would give some members of Congress a strong reason to adopt the issue (or, if the concentration was in the right place, might push presidential candidates to support it). 

Politicians might also know of the polling numbers but be wary of how stable they might be. If Democratic politicians began supporting legalization nationally, it's very likely that Republican voters would respond by turning against legalization. Beyond that, there's just no particular reason to trust that the shift in public opinion will be durable. I can't think of any reason to believe that it's a shift that will inevitably build on itself. 

And on top of all that, legalization is easier said than done, as Bloomberg Businessweek's Erin Schwartz reports. Same-sex marriage was easy to implement: Change a few forms, and it's done. At most, we could call the problem of what to do about vendors who refuse to sell products to same-sex couples an implementation problem, but that's about it. Marijuana legalization, on the other hand, brings with it a whole host of regulation questions, and the states that have moved in that direction have found some of them tricky indeed. If public opinion on the subject is loosely held, that also means the possibility of a backlash if implementation goes badly is a real deterrent for politicians considering championing the issue. 

Which is not to say that legalization won't happen. A state-by-state process may well teach politicians and regulators best practices, and that could wind up solidifying the shift in public opinion. The point is only that the failure of national politicians to hop on board this particular bandwagon is perfectly understandable from the nature of the policy and how political incentives work. 

1. Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel at the Monkey Cage on what's in store for Jerome Powell at the Fed

2. Seth Masket at FiveThirtyEight has a fascinating argument about why Martin O'Malley could be a contender in 2020 and what it means about the presidential nomination process. 

3. Matt Glassman on why roll-call votes don't tell us very much about congressional support for Trump. 

4. Dan Drezner on the Fed selection.

5. Amy Walter at the Cook Political Report on what the generic ballot polling question means, now and next year. 

6. And Anna Maria Barry-Jester at FiveThirtyEight reports on how the Affordable Care Act is working in California.

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