On Monday New Jersey state Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) officially introduced a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana like alcohol in his state. As long as Chris Christie (R) is governor this bill is effectively doomed but a bill doesn’t need to become law to still have an impact.
Political change is often a long-term process which does not come about in a single session but is built on years of work. Offering bills that are unlikely to pass can still provide benefits.
1) Raises Awareness – Merely introducing a bill can generate media attention and get voters thinking about the issue. There are many smart and popular policies that languish simply because they cannot build enough traction. Given the significant amount of local coverage Scutari has gotten, he has succeed in this goal.
2) Make it Understandable – Most people still don’t have a good sense of what “marijuana legalization” would actually be like so when provided a clear framework support tends to increase noticably. A New Hampshire poll found that while only 51 percent supported marijuana legalization in general, support rose to 60 percent for a pending legalization bill when its specific regulator details were described to them
3) Get it Analyzed and Scored – Many states have agencies which analyze pending bills to assess their financial impact, but they can only do this for specific pieces of legislation, not general concepts. For example, even though the Tom Ammiano 2009 legalization bill in California ultimately failed, the California Board of Equalization examined the bill and projected it would generate $1.4 billion a year for the state. This proof that marijuana legalization could be a financial boon helped advance the argument and was cited frequently during the Prop 19 campaign.
4) Makes Whipping Easier – It can be easy to press politicians to co-sponsor/vote for an existing bill rather than a vague principle. A classic dodge to avoid answering a question is saying they “need to see all the details.” With an actual bill they have the details. In addition, following is almost always seen as less politically risky than taking the lead. Now that Scutari is out front it is easier for others who only need to sign on.
5) Getting Policy Makers to Think About the Details- When creating a whole new legal market there are hundreds of policy decisions that need to be made. Providing a starting point gets policy makers thinking about these questions and makes debating individual provisions easier.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy
Photo by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons license