Big Money Fights to Block Marijuana Legalization
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Pot! Glorious pot. Few issues have seen a more rapid shift in public opinion, with a majority of Americans now in favor of legalizing marijuana – up from just 34% a decade ago. But not everybody is down with the reefer. Several industries are buying as much political influence as possible to quell the burgeoning legalization movement. According to the Pew Research Center, pot is now legal in some form in over half the country. And as legalization advocates have pointed out, things seem to be going pretty well so far. Colorado, for instance, has seen marijuana arrests plummet since legalization was approved by voters in 2012, freeing up law enforcement to focus on other crimes and saving the state millions in enforcement costs. Tax revenues are also through the roof, with legal marijuana set to pour $125 million into state coffers last year alone.
Yet some political leaders still aren't convinced. The most recent example: Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who doubled down on her opposition to legalization in a recent interview with the New York Times, putting her at odds with 65% of self-identified Democrats. Why would one of the Democratic party’s top figures take such an unusual stance? One possible reason: Wasserman Schultz’s re-election campaign has received a big financial boost from the alcohol industry, which stands to suffer financially if legalized pot cuts into its market share. Our analysis of contribution data found that Wasserman Schultz and her leadership PAC have received $330,568 from the Beer, Wine, & Liquor industry since her first congressional election cycle in 2006. Wasserman Schultz certainly isn’t the only politician to benefit from Big Booze’s largesse. The Beer, Wine, & Liquor industry contributed more than $17 million to federal candidates in the last election and has funded opponents of ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana. The alcohol business might have reason to worry about growing competition from legal reefer: in Colorado, tax revenues from pot have outpaced taxes raised from alcohol for the first time ever, with few signs of sales slowing down. But Big Booze isn’t the only established industry fighting marijuana. Several others stand to lose money off legalization, too, and they’re willing to spend good money buying the political influence to stop it.
Take the pharmaceutical lobby. As retired police officer-turned-legalization advocate Howard Wooldridge explained to Republic Report, PhRMA is a top opponent of legalization, due to the emerging potential of marijuana as an alternative to “Advil, ibuprofen all the way to Vicodin, pills for nausea – I mean expensive store-bought pills.” This claim has been borne out by excellent reporting from journalist Lee Fang, whose work highlights the deep tiesbetween many national groups leading the charge against legalization and the makers of painkillers such as Oxycontin and Zohydrol.
“It’s more than a little odd that CADCA and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies.” – Lee Fang, Journalist
Rounding out the pack of legalization opponents is the prison industry. Police unions, often a major force in state and local politics, have funneled money to anti-legalization campaigns and lobbyists — in some cases to protect police access to federal funds made available to departments that tackle marijuana related offenses. Prison guard unions have spent big to defeat reform efforts that emphasize drug treatment programs instead of harsh prison sentences. And finally, there’s private prison companies, which have openly admitted that any changes to laws affecting drugs and controlled substances could reduce demand for prison beds and hurt their bottom line. Fortunately, there’s a silver lining to all of this. While the anti-legalization crowd boasts substantial financial muscle and lobbying power, legalization proponents have still managed to secure major victories at the state and local level. How? By circumventing local political figures and taking ballot initiatives directly to the people. The lesson is clear: if you’re an activist facing big-money opposition and a political class that just won’t give you the time of day, skip politics as usual. Go straight to the people.