Brian Howey: Whiff of change (& reefer) in the air

By Brian Howey

For The Republic

What do Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, industrialist Charles Koch, former House Speaker John Boehner, Sarah Palin and Snoop Dogg have in common?

They all back marijuana reforms.

The rapper Dogg is no surprise, having built his career on a foundation of bongs and kush. But Justice Thomas? He recently wrote, “A prohibition on intrastate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the federal government’s piecemeal approach. Federal policies of the past 16 years have greatly undermined its reasoning. The federal government’s current approach is a half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana.”

And Speaker Boehner? “My thinking on cannabis has evolved,” he said. “I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.”

Koch, whose Americans for Prosperity group has backed a generation of conservative congressional and state legislative candidates, has joined Mr. Dogg and criminal justice reform advocate Weldon Angelos to form the Cannabis Freedom Alliance.

So beyond the whiff of weed I discovered at a Temptations concert at Conner Prairie this summer, there is definitely change in the air.

I’ve been writing politics for more than 40 years, and I’ve never had a U.S. Senate candidate call me up and tell me he’s smoked marijuana. But that’s what happened one morning when Democratic Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., said he smoked marijuana at a Grateful Dead concert at Wrigley Field this past summer. “I was in Chicago where it’s legal,” McDermott said on his Left of Center podcast. “I had a ride there and from. I was in a state where it’s legal. I did. What’s the big deal?”

McDermott, who is seeking to challenge U.S. Sen. Todd Young, added, “If I’m elected to the U.S. Senate, I’m going to vote to decriminalize. I’m going to vote to legalize.”

Back in the day, if a politician acknowledged smokin’ the demon weed, he didn’t inhale (Bill Clinton) or did it just once (Evan Bayh).

Now Indiana Democrats have jumped onto the legalization bandwagon, with Chairman Mike Schmuhl saying, “This is a really popular issue and I think people want to see this get done. If Democrats can take the lead on it, even being in the minority, that’s great, and we’re going to try to get as many Republicans on our side as we do it. Hoosiers have seen the impact that recreational and medicinal cannabis use has made on the states around us, and not only are they contributing to neighboring states’ economies, Indiana is now on the verge of losing out altogether.”

Hoosiers and Americans have supported marijuana reforms for years now. In October 2016, a Howey Politics/WTHR-TV poll found more than 70% of Hoosiers, including 58% of Republicans, favored marijuana reforms. Gallup has been monitoring the issue since 1969 when 12% favored legalization, moving to 50% in 2013 to 68% this year as 36 states (including Illinois and Michigan) either decriminalizing or legalizing, with Hoosiers making up to 60% of their clientele.

Beyond public opinion, some Hoosier prosecutors appear to be lining up behind Justice Thomas. Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears is no long charging in possession cases, saying, “In Indiana, the continued criminalization of marijuana is an inadequacy in our criminal justice system that increases racial disparities and limits economic opportunities for our state.”

Republicans in the U.S. House introduced legislation on Monday that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, says she has five Republican co-sponsors, which could be enough to pass the House.

Hoosier Democrats may be on to something. Back in the 1980s, General Assembly Republicans consistently blocked a state lottery. In 1986, Republican House Speaker J. Roberts Dailey was upset and two years later, a referendum on the lottery passed … with 63% of the vote. It just goes to show lawmakers are often the last ones to figure out a viable trend or summon courage to correct a prohibition.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol. Send comments to [email protected].