In the past 15 years, support/opposition for legalizing marijuana has skyrocketed from 25%/73% in 1996 to 50%/46% in 2011. Yet there’s still not a single elected official in the United States holding a statewide office (Senator or Governor) on record supporting it. Even some of the best on the issue, like Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, have only gone as far as to advocate for decriminalization.
If anyone caught the wonderful Ken Burns documentary on alcohol prohibition earlier this month, they know the legacy of Wayne Wheeler, the main political leader behind the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). Wheeler made himself into one of the most powerful men in Washington by organizing prohibition supporters into large voting blocs capable of swinging elections. His incredible success at doing so led to a Congress in the 1910s where even members who privately enjoyed their liquor would publicly rail against it.
Wheeler didn’t need 50% of the people in his voting bloc. In fact, many times he didn’t. Yet he was able to turn elections his way time and time again. As Daniel Okrent explains in Last Call:
With the ASL’s decision to embark on the “next and final step”, Wheeler’s skill at manipulating majorities through the power of a minority became yet more crucial. The referendum and initiative movement, which drys had supported before they fully grasped how to control legislatures, turned out to be potentially ruinous to the ASL. When two candidates opposing each other in a popular election could be differentiated by isolating one issue out of many, Wheeler’s minority could carry the day; a candidate with, say, the support of 45 percent of the electorate could win with the added votes of the ASL bloc. But when voters were offered a simple yes-or-no, dry-or-wet choice on a ballot measure, a minority was only a minority. In a statewide popular vote on a dry law, wrote historian Jack S. Blocker Jr., the ASL “wielded no power greater than its actual numbers”; in legislative elections, the power of Wheeler’s minority could be measured in multiples.
In theory, the same should be true for marijuana today. Even if only 10% of those who support marijuana legalization (5% of the overall population) vote as a bloc against any candidate who fails to support it, it could function as the same wedge that Wheeler used to bring about alcohol prohibition. But that doesn’t seem likely to happen, and it didn’t play much of a role in the end of alcohol prohibition either.
Even in 1928, as the Democrats nominated prohibition opponent Al Smith in a country that had become mostly fed up with the failures of the Volstead Act, the nation voted for prohibition supporter Herbert Hoover. And Pauline Sabin, the prominent socialite whose support for ending alcohol prohibition was key to showing that women stood against it, was brushed aside by her fellow Republican Hoover, and left the party because of it. Neither Sabin, nor Smith, nor the powerful DuPonts (who thought that ending alcohol prohibition would lead to the reversal of the income tax) could exert the kind of singular political force wielded by Wayne Wheeler. Why?
The easy – and stupid – answer is that drunks and stoners don’t vote. And while there’s some truth to that in general, the 50% of Americans who support ending marijuana prohibition are comprised mostly of people who don’t use it – or use it moderately – but have a strong belief that the law is bad for any number of other reasons. The same was certainly true during alcohol prohibition. The potential voters are clearly out there today to do what Wheeler did.
What I think it comes down to though is that the drive to bring about prohibitions has such a fervent religious element to it that it allows for single-issue voting en masse in ways that hardly any other causes can duplicate. There may be large numbers of people who support the cause of ending prohibition, but few think it’s such a matter of divine importance that all other issues take a backseat. It’s seen as another institutional issue, alongside other serious institutional issues we face, like income inequality and the soaring costs of health care. The same wasn’t really true of those who made up Wayne Wheeler’s voting blocs. And it hasn’t been true of those in the past who’ve supported the drug war and reflexively voted for the candidates who they see as “tough on crime”. This imbalance is just a part of what keeps the drug war going, and it may be just as important as the prison lobby or the pharmaceutical industry or the anti-drug bureaucracies – the groups who often get the blame/credit for keeping politicians silent.