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On April 20th, 2018, New Mexico junior senator Martin Heinrich announced, via social media, a seemingly sharp divergence from his former opinion on the legalization of recreational marijuana. The senator’s tweet, which simply read, “It’s time to legalize marijuana,” was quickly met with a deluge of support from Heinrich’s (largely democratic) followers. Heinrich later solidified his image as a supporter of marijuana law reform by co-sponsoring the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, a bill which, if passed, would clear the way for legally regulated cannabis sale nation-wide and authoring a congressional report on the economic benefits of marijuana legalization. Heinrich’s strong support for the reformation of marijuana laws came as a surprise to many who had followed his senatorial campaign in 2012, during which he had expressed ambiguous feelings on the subject (Oxford, 2018). Upon close examination in this essay, it becomes clear that Heinrich’s decision to publicly support the legalization of marijuana in 2018 was a part of an artful effort to maintain the support of his democratic base in light of recent public opinion polls regarding marijuana and Gary Johnson’s decision to join the 2018 senate race.
Over the past century, the legality of cannabis sale and possession in the United States has remained a controversial topic. Up until the late 1800s, hemp was grown prolifically throughout America. The plant was used for both for its strong fibers, which could be made into rope or fabric, and for its medicinal properties. Hemp was even used as a form of legal currency in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.1 America’s opinions on marijuana drastically changed, however, in the early 1900s, when the Mexican Revolution resulted in an influx of Mexican immigrants entering the United States. Anti-immigrant sentiments surged in concert with the anti-drug campaigns associated with prohibition; before long, the two issues were erroneously conflated, leading to the idea that Mexican immigrants were eroding the moral fabric of white America by smoking and distributing marijuana. In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created to address the nation’s problems with opiates and cocaine, but the institution came to exercise a great deal of influence over cannabis laws as well. The appointed director of the bureau, Harry Anslinger, was vehemently against the consumption of marijuana, believing it to be the cause of violence, psychosis, satanism, and racial unrest (Adams, 2016). Anslinger’s crusade against marijuana lead to the passage of laws like the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act and the 1952 Boggs Act which made the plant illegal and imposed increasingly harsh penalties for cannabis-related offenses.
Since the 1950s, support for legal marijuana has gone through several phases. During the 1960s and 1970s, the country’s opinion on the drug was highly polarized with Nixon attempting to instill harsher punishments for marijuana possession and sale, while liberals campaigned for legalization. During the 1970s, congress repealed many of the marijuana-related mandatory minimum sentencing policies of the 1950s and 11 states decriminalized marijuana possession. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, the country went through an era of conservative drug policies, reinstituting mandatory minimum sentences and launching national ad campaigns to discourage young people from using cannabis. In recent years, Americans have developed a renewed enthusiasm for legalizing the use of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes.
According to Gallup polls, the number of Americans who believe that marijuana should be legal has increased steadily from 25% of the adult population in the mid-1990s to 66% in 2018 (McCarthy, 2018). Marijuana has been fully legalized by eleven states and the District of Columbia, decriminalized by an additional 15 states (including New Mexico), and legalized for medical purposes in 21 states (including New Mexico). Despite these numbers, marijuana remains federally classified as an illegal schedule I substance. This conflict of laws remains a topic of contention between the federal and state governments, each claiming jurisdiction in overlapping territories.
Marijuana law reform is a controversial issue that has affected all Americans in one way or another. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States.” Furthermore, over 3.9 trillion dollars are spent every year in the US to enforce marijuana laws. In consideration of these numbers, any American who pays taxes or uses public services is affected by our country’s current marijuana policies.
In his landmark paper, Congress: The Electoral Connection, David Mayhew contends that “United States congress-men are interested in getting reelected – indeed, in their role here as abstractions, interested in nothing else” (Mayhew, 1974). These words ring true when we consider the motivations behind Martin Heinrich’s decision to publicly support marijuana law reform in 2018, as well as his decision to refrain from issuing a decisive public opinion on the matter in 2012.
When Heinrich decided to run for US senate in 2012, he undoubtedly knew that he had significant advantages at the outset of the race. He was vying for an open senate seat – one which was vacated by a fellow democrat. New Mexico, once considered a swing state, had voted for Obama over McCain in 2008 by almost a 4% margin, signaling to many that New Mexico had become a securely democratic state. Early polls continued to show Heinrich in the lead against his opponent, republican Heather Wilson. Heinrich was likely feeling quite confident in his ability to be elected to the senate in 2012.
Nationwide polling in 2012 showed that the country, itself, had mixed feelings about the legalization of marijuana. Gallup polls showed that almost exactly half of the country supported legalizing marijuana at the time. Given his consistent lead in the polls and the estimated level of public support for marijuana law reform, Heinrich had everything to lose and little to gain by taking a strong stance on marijuana legalization. When asked about the issue during an interview with the Albuquerque Journal in 2012, Heinrich states “I certainly support the states being able to use medical marijuana with a prescription from a doctor, there is no question about that. I wouldn’t say I’m briefed enough on the issue to make a commitment beyond that”.
Six years later, in 2018, Martin Heinrich was an incumbent senator up for reelection. In early 2018, Heinrich’s initial tweet expressing support for marijuana law reform was likely a response to simple polling numbers. Not only did national polls show that about two-thirds of Americans supported legalized recreational marijuana, but New Mexican polls confirmed that our state reflected this broader trend. A poll published in early 2016 by the Albuquerque Journal showed that 61% of New Mexicans were in favor of legalizing marijuana for users over the age of 21. Because democratic Americans have been consistently more likely than republicans to support legalized marijuana, it would have been logical for Heinrich to conclude that declaring his support for marijuana law reform would help him secure his base, and possibly gain votes from undecided New Mexicans as well.
In the summer of 2018, Heinrich’s position on marijuana legalization was strengthened when the senator was faced with an unexpected challenger from the Libertarian Party. Early in the 2018 New Mexico senate race, Aubrey Dunn had been endorsed as the Libertarian Party candidate. With somewhat abysmal poll numbers, Dunn had been all but dismissed as a serious competitor by Heinrich and his republican challenger, Mick Rich. On July 30th, Dunn announced his decision to withdraw from the senate race and, as was widely anticipated, Gary Johnson stepped in to take Dunn’s place. Despite being a third-party candidate, Johnson was, justifiably, considered a serious threat to Heinrich’s campaign. Johnson had accrued a great deal of name recognition by serving as New Mexico Governor and competing in two presidential elections. He remained a popular political figure in the state; polls throughout the campaign season showed Johnson garnering a level of support usually unachievable by third-party candidates. Although it might appear that Johnson’s support would come mostly from conservatives (voters who would otherwise vote for Rich rather than Heinrich), Johnson’s strong and long-standing belief in legal marijuana, as well some of his other socially liberal opinions, threatened to attract support from democratic voters.
In response to Johnson’s entry into the 2018 senate race, Heinrich needed to ensure that his democratic base wouldn’t be swayed by some of Johnson’s more liberal ideas. Predictably, Heinrich became increasingly outspoken in his support for marijuana law reform by admitting to having smoked marijuana in the past during a televised debate4 and using his ranked position on the Joint Economic Committee to author a congressional report on the economic benefits of legalized marijuana.
In the end, Heinrich’s campaign for reelection to US senate in 2018 was successful, but Gary Johnson proved himself to be a formidable third-party challenger. Though at first glance it may seem that his personal opinion has evolved, I believe that Heinrich’s publicly expressed positions on the reformation of marijuana laws reflect highly calculated strategies to ensure maximal voter support during election years.
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