Governors for Legal Cannabis: The Next Frontier in Reform

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said in a recent news conference that he supports eventual legalization of marijuana in his state. He also joked about his past use of the plant, which received wide media coverage. The fact that Shumlin’s statement was not seen as a bombshell as it would have just a few years ago is a good indication of how mainstream the cannabis reform movement has become. Ending marijuana prohibition is seen by an increasing proportion of the political and media class as an undeniably legitimate endeavor.

However, Shumlin remains in very limited company that usually refrains from openly espousing reform. State governors, regardless of partisan affiliation, have a tendency to be slower to catch up to the tide than their legislative counterparts when it comes to marijuana or drug policy in general. In New Hampshire, despite overwhelming bipartisan support for medical marijuana among state legislators, then-Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, delaying medical marijuana in his state for a year while countless patients were left without legal access to their medicine. In 2009, similarly in Minnesota, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a medical marijuana bill that was popular among legislators and residents of the state. Pawlenty’s Democratic successor, Mark Dayton, was vocally hostile to reform before finally relenting and signing a watered-down bill to allow medical use last year.

That's not all. Last year, Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett threatened to veto a medicinal-use bill that was passed in landslide fashion through the legislature. When citizens of some states launch referendums to give the voters the chance to enact marijuana reforms at the ballot box, the governors have almost invariably been opposed. There were some notable exceptions to this though. Montana was one rare instance where the governor thwarted the legislators’ attempt to repeal the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana law. When voters last year legalized recreational use in Oregon, the governor recognized legalization’s inevitability.

There are a few possible causes for the governors’ relative unwillingness to go along with positive change to end the bloody war on marijuana, compared to other state and local political leaders. One is that governors are usually more beholden to the police and prosecutors’ representatives, as law enforcement is seen as an integral part of the executive branch. All governors who declare their opposition to changes in laws relating to marijuana have mentioned “concerns” from police. Law enforcement makes a literal and figurative killing from the War on Drugs through civil forfeiture and increased funding, so it is in their financial interest to perpetuate prohibition no matter how harmful it is to the life and freedom of ordinary Americans. Politicians of, or aspiring to get into, the executive branch, in turn, rely heavily on police for their campaign endorsements and contributions, leading to a collusion unfavorable to drug policy reform.

Another reason may be that governors often have to work extensively with the federal government, including on law enforcement matters. As we clearly can see, there is much less tolerance of liberalized marijuana laws at the federal level. These reticent governors may also harbor ambitions for federal offices, incentivizing them to go along with the feds and their failed policies. Due to the uncontrolled expansion of federal power for many decades, state authorities have become timid and reluctant to even speak in defense of lawful state practices against federal encroachment. When we see the DEA’s brutal raids into medical marijuana dispensaries operating in accordance to state laws, the states rarely do anything in their defense. In 2011, a U.S. attorney threatened to prosecute state workers in Washington State if they were to participate in certain aspects of implementation of the medical marijuana law. Intimidated and lacking the backbone to defy the Feds, Governor Chris Gregoire vetoed parts of the law.

Facing a bully’s threats, the correct course would be to fight back and push for our model legislation, the P.E.A.C.E (Preventing Excessive Allocations for Cannabis Enforcement) Act. A principled state governor ideally should defend state medical marijuana laws on the grounds of protecting the state citizens’ choices regardless whether the governor in question agrees with the law. The governor is the chief executive of a state with vested powers to protect the state’s own people, not to serve as the Feds’ underlings. We have seen over the years that state governors have repeatedly failed to uphold this duty and caved whenever the DEA or another federal bureaucracy relying on prohibition to butter its bread turns up the heat on them.

Peter Shumlin’s coming out to support marijuana legalization is a positive sign and deserves some praise, but it is time for governors and the executive branch officials of all states to get onboard. What can be done to make recalcitrant governors’ accountable? We who campaign for freedom and peace at the state and local levels should not forget the governor’s mansion as part of our effort. Political pressure needs to be exerted on governors and gubernatorial candidates to present an effective push-back against police and Feds’ undue influence on state marijuana policies. Governors and people who aspire to hold the office must be reminded that they are accountable to the needs of those living within their state’s boundaries, not to feckless bureaucratic edicts emanating from Arlington, Virginia where the DEA is headquartered.

The political atmosphere is changing rapidly, and we are seeing candidates supporting the end of drug war beating their drug warrior opponents in legislative elections at all levels, such as when Beto O’Rourke defeated sitting prohibitionist Congressman Silvestre Reyes in Texas, or when a city councilor in Missouri was forced to resign before being recalled due to reneging her campaign pledge to support marijuana decriminalization. When the same thing starts happening to state governors, a strong message will be sent that it is political suicide to stand in the way of Peace on our Streets.