Imagine an issue backed by an overwhelming majority of Americans across all age groups, races and party affiliations. A modest health care policy change with substantial scientific evidence behind it, supported by 67 percent of medical doctors, and already in place in several other countries. An idea so uncontroversial that only one in eight regular people actually oppose it.
You would think such a policy would be an easy sell to politicians, but it’s not in the Bizzaro world which is Washington, D.C. when it comes to medical marijuana. Instead, you have supporters literally on their knees begging an unpopular Congress to do something that is actually popular with little response.
For some reason, federal politicians treat medical marijuana as if it were some unspeakable taboo. A bill to simply get the federal government out of the way of state medical marijuana laws has been sponsored by less than 6 percent of House members. Even worse, President Obama and his team have made public statements, which range from obfuscation to outright lies, to hide the fact they have the authority to advance the issue by rescheduling marijuana via executive action.
In the face of this incredible disconnect I joined Americans for Safe Access (ASA) during their day of lobbying armed with simply one question: Why are so few federal politicians supporting medical marijuana, given that it is one of the most popular issues in current polling?
When I asked Tim Smale, a medical marijuana patient and operator of a state-certified dispensary in Maine, he said he thought the problem was ignorance.
Members of Congress don’t know enough about the science and where the public really stands on the issue. That is why at the end of his presentation to a small room of Capitol Hill staffers he literally got on his knees to beg them to do something to help the roughly one million legal marijuana patients.
“I’m not opposed to begging,” said Smale.
Even though medical marijuana is legal in 20 states, making this a pressing federal-state conflict, Smale’s action was only seen by a few dozen staffers and handful of media who attended the briefing. Still, the hope seemed to be that a grand gesture might help break through the wall of inaction.
Kris Hermes of ASA provided some more possible answers. In addition to members of Congress not simply being aware of the polling and science, he thinks politicians still heavily stigmatize medical marijuana, thanks to the War on Drugs that has “institutionalized a system of incarceration that relies on the criminalization of marijuana.”
When I reached out to people who work on marijuana policy, by far the most common obstacle seemed to be the age of federal politicians and/or the fact that they are mentally stuck in political thinking that is out of date by decades.
Dan Riffle from Marijuana Policy Project highlighted the generational factor. The members of Congress are old, and it tends to be old people who turn out most heavily in elections. “The average age is 57 in the House and 62 in the Senate—so they come from a demographic not particularly likely to support reform.”
Along similar lines Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority believes “the simplest explanation is that too many elected officials are still getting bad advice from political consultants who cut their teeth in the 1980s, back when this issue could be construed as a ‘third-rail.’”
Dan Rush from the UFCW, a union with several members in the medical marijuana industry, put it even simpler. To many in Congress, “Marijuana is still scary.” When he has approached members, some seem genuinely surprised when shown how much support medical marijuana has with the electorate.
When I’ve ask people why so much opposition still exists, I do get some references to the “prison-industrial complex” and financial interests. I can even see how that would be an oddly more satisfying answer.
At least special interest money being the main cause implies a logical decision making process and a Frank Underwood-style competence. But among people who work on the issue, the bigger problems seem to be that our representatives are old, unaware of how much things have change in the world, and are still scared by political fights from the last millennium.
In many ways, though, this answer can be even more disconcerting. Patients with cancer and children with epilepsy are left to suffer because the D.C. political class has become so stuck in their own thinking that not even overwhelming popular support, new data, or literal begging can easily change their minds.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy