A growing list of Democratic presidential contenders want the U.S. government to legalize marijuana, reflecting a nationwide shift as more Americans look favorably on cannabis.
Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the “smart thing to do,” says California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor whose home state is the nation’s largest legal pot shop. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a prominent legalization advocate on Capitol Hill, says the war on drugs has been a “war on people.”
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who appears poised to join the 2020 Democratic field, has written a book arguing marijuana legalization would hobble drug cartels. In an email to supporters this week, he called again to end the federal prohibition on marijuana.
“Who is going to be the last man—more likely than not a black man—to languish behind bars for possessing or using marijuana when it is legal in some form in more than half of the states in this country?” O’Rourke wrote.
It’s a far different approach from the not-so-distant past, when it was seen as politically damaging to acknowledge smoking pot and no major presidential candidate backed legalization.
In 1992, then-White House candidate Bill Clinton delivered a famously tortured response about a youthful dalliance with cannabis, claiming he tried it as a graduate student in England but “didn’t inhale.” And two decades before that, President Richard Nixon unleashed a war on marijuana and other drugs and it helped carry him to a second term.
This year, leading Democrats hold similar positions supporting legalization. Presidential hopefuls in the Senate who have co-sponsored Booker’s legislation to end the federal prohibition include Harris, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, who campaigned on decriminalizing pot in his 2016 presidential bid.
Another 2020 Democratic candidate, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, supports legalization and believes states should have the right to determine how to handle marijuana regulation within their borders but hasn’t signed on to Booker’s legislation.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who entered the contest this month, said in his announcement speech it’s “about time” to legalize the drug nationally.
During his 2012 run for governor, Inslee opposed the ballot initiative that made Washington one of the first two states to legalize so-called recreational marijuana. As governor, however, he has frequently touted what he describes as Washington’s successful experiment with regulation and has urged the Obama and Trump administrations not to intervene. He recently began pardoning people with small-time marijuana convictions.
The widespread endorsement for national marijuana reform among Democrats tracks the nation’s evolving views.
In the late 1960s—the era of Woodstock and Vietnam—12 percent of Americans supported legalization, according to the Gallup poll. By last year, the figure hit a record 66 percent. About 75 percent of Democrats support legalization, along with a slim majority of Republicans.
Most Americans now live in states where marijuana is legal in some form. Pot dispensaries are familiar sights in cities like Los Angeles and Denver, and conservative strongholds like Utah and Oklahoma have established medical marijuana programs.
To Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization advocacy group, it’s not surprising there’s broad support among candidates to end the federal prohibition.
“It’s no longer popular to be in favor of marijuana prohibition,” Tvert said.
But there are limits: “We are not seeing any candidates saying, ‘I am currently a marijuana user,’” he added.
The trajectory toward legal pot has come with generational change.
In a 2003 Democratic presidential forum, candidates John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean acknowledged using marijuana in the past. Former President Barack Obama has been open about his youthful drug use, sometimes with a jab of humor: “When I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point,” he said in 2006.
In a recent radio interview on the syndicated “The Breakfast Club,” Harris recalled smoking pot in her college days in the 1980s. She was an early supporter of medical marijuana but the Los Angeles Times reported that in 2010, the year she was elected California attorney general, that Harris opposed an initiative to more broadly legalize marijuana.
How potent the legal pot platform might be with voters in 2020 is only a guess.
Polls show some of the strongest support comes from younger voters. In California, millennials are now the largest generation among registered voters. However, younger voters are also the most likely to stay home on Election Day, said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan research firm.
President Donald Trump’s position on cannabis remains somewhat opaque. He has said he supports laws legalizing medical marijuana but hasn’t offered a definitive position on broader legalization.
In a departure from his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, new Attorney General William Barr has said he will “not go after” marijuana companies in states where cannabis is legal, even though he personally believes the drug should be outlawed.
Standing somewhat apart from the Democratic field is the man who presided over one of the first legal recreational marijuana marketplaces in the nation, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper opposed the ballot measure that fully legalized marijuana in Colorado in 2012. But he said he accepted the will of the voters and won praise for implementing the measure. He says his “worst fears” about legalization haven’t been realized and considers the system better than when the drug was illegal.
Still, Hickenlooper isn’t willing to go as far as some competitors. Rather than calling for national legalization, he wants the drug to no longer be a Schedule 1 controlled substance so it can be studied.
He doesn’t think the federal government “should come in and tell every state that it should be legal,” believing states should make their own determinations.
“I trust this process by which states should be the models of, or laboratories of, democracy,” he said.
John Lamm has good advice for anyone in the market for a historic bridge: Find good help.
He relocated two old bridges, one from Cooksville, to span a creek in different areas on his property northwest of Milwaukee.
Lamm could not have done it without the expertise of a bridge-building company.
His insight is timely for people in Rock County, where the 1910 Smith Road Bridge over Turtle Creek is available to the public. Free.
All you have to do is move it and maintain its historic integrity.
Just one caveat: Don’t underestimate the cost to relocate, reassemble and rehabilitate the approximately 120-foot-long truss bridge with a 16-foot deck.
The price tag could be as much as $350,000, according to information from Mead & Hunt, an engineering and architecture firm.
Requests for information packages about relocating the steel bridge must be submitted by April 14 to Mead & Hunt of Middleton.
Some financial help is available.
The state and Rock County jointly will provide up to the estimated cost of demolition to the person who agrees to relocate the bridge, said Rock County Public Works Director Duane Jorgenson Jr.
“The recipient will be responsible for any costs above and beyond that,” he added.
Mead & Hunt estimate the cost of demolishing and disposing of the bridge at about $60,000.
Removal or demolition of the bridge is necessary because a new bridge is expected to be constructed in 2020.
“The existing bridge is structurally deficient and functionally obsolete,” Jorgenson said.
Because the existing bridge is historic and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, “we are required to advertise the bridge to the public for potential repurposing,” he said.
In Wisconsin, a handful of such bridges may be offered for relocation each year.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office will review all proposals. They will select a recipient based on the feasibility of the person’s relocation and funding plan.
If no one proposes a suitable use for the bridge, it will be demolished, Jorgenson said.
If the bridge disappears, so does its early and unusual Pratt through-truss design, named after 19th-century bridge developers Caleb and Thomas Pratt.
Built by the Worden-Allen Company of Milwaukee, the bridge went up a year before Wisconsin bridge design was standardized.
According to information from Mead & Hunt:
The bridge carries traffic on Smith Road over Turtle Creek between the towns of La Prairie on the east and Turtle on the west, about 10 miles northeast of Beloit. Tiffany and Shopiere are to the west and east, respectively.
Beloit City Council member Mark Preuschl believes the bridge could be used to replace the closed 140-foot Wheeler Street Bridge near the state line in South Beloit, Illinois.
He is seeking help to put together a plan to relocate the Smith Road Bridge.
Plans to repair and or replace the Wheeler Street Bridge as a safe off-road bike path between Beloit and South Beloit have existed for years, but funding has so far proved elusive, Preuschl said.
He emphasized the idea is not a Beloit project, but it would require the city’s help and resources at some point.
“Moving the bridge, while challenging, is not a large logistical hurdle,” Preuschl said, adding that the bridge would fit in the space occupied by the Wheeler Street Bridge.
“I leave it for engineers to figure out how to make it work without requiring a lot of expensive foundation work,” Preuschl said.
John Lamm is a private citizen who keeps two historic bridges on his Washington County property, where he has a landscaping, design and garden center.
He moved an 84-foot steel-girder bridge from Lebanon in Dodge County to his property in 1996. The 1883 bridge came in several semi-loads.
“I had no idea when we took the bridge how we would put it back together,” he said. “It lay there for about a year or more in pieces.”
Eventually, he hired Pheifer Brothers Construction of Neenah to carefully put the parts back together.
In 2003, he acquired a 64-foot town of Porter bridge, built in 1928.
He put both bridges over a creek in different areas to connect two farms.
When people come for hay rides and other events at his business, they cross the historic bridges and learn about their histories.
“We preserved history, and the bridges provide a vital connection between farms,” Lamm said. “We use them every day.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel E. Austin
Jacklyn “Jackie” Baehr
Raymond E. Chesmore Sr.
Timothy “Timmer” D. Fuller
James M. Funk
Robert P. “Buzz” Janes
Jean M. Jensen
Kelly A. Jones
Lauren Pohn Kilkenny
Shelly Marie Lawver
Tiffany A. Slaughter
Ralph William Wilcox
Phillip E. Wulf
Police and sociologists aren’t surprised a Gazette analysis shows low-income neighborhoods in Janesville generate more arrests.
Police Chief Dave Moore said there’s a connection between poverty and crime, and part of the reason in Janesville is that police focus more attention on those neighborhoods.
But critics of this approach to policing say it doesn’t deter crime, and it worsens poverty and other stress on residents.
The Gazette analyzed Janesville police data for 2017, plotting the home addresses of those arrested for felonies.
The data show the city’s near west side, where census data indicates much of the city’s poverty is concentrated, is also the home of a high proportion of those arrested.
People arrested that year live all over the city, but areas with lower incomes showed higher percentages of arrestees.
The analysis used census tracts to measure concentrations of people living below 125 percent of the federal poverty line. The area with the highest low-income level also had the highest rate of felony arrests, 18.3 arrests per 1,000 residents.
The question of poverty was raised recently when Rock County released statistics showing the county’s African-American population is both poorer than the majority white population and much more likely to be arrested.
Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore suggested poverty, education and parenting of those arrested might explain the statistics, rather than racial bias on the part of police. Sheriff Troy Knudson said more study was needed before conclusions could be drawn.
But others said the difference in arrests was so great that racial bias had to be a factor.
The argument is a nationwide one, with some saying police focusing on areas of poverty drives up arrest rates in those areas.
UW-Madison sociologist Pamela Oliver, who works with the Wisconsin Racial Disparities Project, said police she has talked to agree that if you commit a crime, you’re more likely to get caught in a heavily policed area, and that’s why statistics show racial differences in arrests.
Studies have shown for years higher drug use among young white people than their black counterparts, and yet it’s poor black communities that see the high arrest rates, Oliver said.
Janesville police concentrate on the low-income areas of the near west side, Moore said.
Moore said he told residents of the Fourth Ward and Look West neighborhoods years ago that police would do what they can to keep them safe.
“And with that comes more police officers,” Moore said.
Moore has long touted this strategy as a way to drive crime away and help the city through tough times, starting as the General Motors plant closed and the Great Recession loomed in 2008.
“The police department has a responsibility to bring order and safety to these neighborhoods, and the way we do that is we’re present to address these types of issues, hopefully before they occur,” Moore said, “… So we are present more in neighborhoods where there is crime and disorder.”
Drug investigations target open-air drug sales and drug houses, Moore said, so if drug sales happen in a way that is much less visible, police might not be as involved.
“Those that don’t think it’s fair, give us a call (about drug sales in more affluent areas). We’ll gladly investigate it,” Moore said.
A Gallup poll last year showed a majority of Americans think there was more crime than the year before, but national crime rates actually are dropping.
Nationally, crime rates declined steadily from 1991 through 2016, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, including through the Great Recession.
And local numbers suggest poverty is not the only thing affecting crime rates.
Consider that Janesville residents living in poverty rose from 12.6 percent in 2010 to 15.2 percent in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But crime went down.
The Janesville Police Department reported crime rates hovering around 4,100 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and then dropping to 3,253 per 100,000 in 2015.
Moore and Oliver agree that poverty can give rise to crime. Moore cautioned, however, that people shouldn’t conclude that a person is a criminal just because he lives in poverty.
One way poverty causes crime is the way most people think of it: Some people in desperate need of money commit crimes, Oliver said.
“Certain kinds of crime are alternative ways to make a living—illegal commerce, stealing stuff,” Oliver said.
Another connection is stress.
“It is very stressful to be poor, and that stress leads to interpersonal violence at times,” Oliver said.
And people suffering stress may turn to legal and illegal mind-altering substances, from alcohol to illicit drugs, Oliver noted.
Behavior arising from those substances can be criminal, and possessing some of them is, Oliver noted.
Moore sees even more connections:
“If you suffer from poverty, you have less access to medical care, mental health care and drug-addiction support,” Moore noted.
All three of those problems can lead to crime: A person in a mental-health crisis might attack a cop, Moore said. And the opioid/heroin epidemic drives many local property crimes as addicts try to keep up with the cost of their habits.
Wealthier people can afford treatment for these problems, but for poor people they can mean losing a job and more stress as people try to provide food and shelter, Moore said.
Having a criminal record can compound the problem, making it harder to get a job.
“It’s not supposed to, but it does,” Moore said.
“Crime is often a response to some kind of trauma, and being poor is a form of trauma,” said Beloit College sociologist Charles Westerberg.
Westerberg noted that some argue poverty causes crime, others that crime causes poverty.
Westerberg thinks poverty and crime are symptoms of deeper problems, and solving these problems requires getting to the root causes.
Moore said people in poverty can’t buy nice cars, so their vehicles are more likely to be pulled over for having a headlight out, for example. Those stops can lead to confrontations with stressed residents or discovery of drugs.
Moore acknowledged police find fewer reasons to stop people with nice cars, even though those cars might have drugs in them, too.
Westerberg said once poor people are arrested, they have fewer resources to pay bail to get out of jail or hire a lawyer, so they may stay in jail, losing their jobs.
Rock County officials are working to make the bail system fairer but are still hammering out the details.
The good news on poverty and crime could be an increase in wages locally.
Erick Williams of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties said youth-employment programs are finding it easier to find jobs for young people, even those with criminal records, and wages have risen above $15 an hour in many places.
That’s an improvement, but the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in 2018 that an hourly wage of $16.52 was needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Wisconsin.
A longtime contention of some researchers is that government can spend more money on subsidizing day care and other services to the poor, or business can pay people higher wages, or government will spend those tax dollars on crime control.
That idea is part of a new National Academy of Sciences report to be released next week, which will recommend reversing the trend of less government help.
“Poverty can be reduced if wages are high enough and jobs are stable enough,” said one of the report’s authors, UW-Madison professor of public affairs and economics Timothy Smeeding, in a university news release. “When wages are not high enough and work is not steady, we need to supplement and stabilize these earned incomes so kids have a decent chance at upward mobility when they grow up.”
“We have made some progress against child poverty over the past 20 years following this philosophy. We just need to do more,” Smeeding continued. “We have found that forcing people to work to keep benefits and promoting marriage among low-income parents does not work, as our report clearly shows.”
Nationwide, there’s a move to change the criminal justice system with the acknowledgement that putting more and more people in prison for longer and longer sentences hasn’t worked.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle are eyeing changes to the get-tough sentencing policies enacted in the 1990s.
“That’s unheard of,” Westerberg said. “If they would have said that, even in 2000, that would’ve been unthinkable.”