08/11/2018 | A.J. Herrington
Former Texas Rep. and likely Democratic contender for the 2020 presidential nomination Beto O’Rourke wants the federal government to end its prohibition on cannabis. In a lengthy email sent to supporters, O’Rourke called for federal cannabis legalization as part of a package of criminal justice proposals.
Marijuana reform has received broad public support from across the political spectrum, but especially among liberal and progressive voters. In the already crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders, most have already endorsed marijuana legalization explicitly as a social and criminal justice measure. If O’Rourke is gearing up to officially enter the contest, a call for federal marijuana legalization is a safe, focus group-tested way to generate enthusiasm around his platform. It also signals the further mainstreaming of an issue that was barely on the federal policy agenda a handful of years ago.
Indeed, support for nationwide cannabis legalization seems to be somewhat of a litmus test for 2020 Democratic hopefuls. Even U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who cut her political teeth as a tough on crime prosecutor in California, has signed on to the Marijuana Justice Act. It’s an in or out issue, and virtually all of the conceivable frontrunners have declared themselves in. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand have all made marijuana legalization a focal point of their platforms.
And like those Democrats, Beto O’Rourke is framing legal weed as a way to reduce mass incarceration in the U.S. and its vast racial disparities. O’Rourke’s email to campaign supporters, the same list that netted him $80 million for his failed Senate run against the polarizing Ted Cruz, outlined his approach to criminal justice reform.
He called for the elimination of private, for-profit prisons, the cash bail system and mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses. Citing Michelle Alexander’s book on mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, O’Rourke criticized the school-to-prison pipeline and the hyper-policing of black youth. He also called for restorative measures like criminal record expungement and “banning the box,” or no longer requiring job applicants to disclose any prior convictions.
That record helped O’Rourke make a name for himself in his home state of Texas. Indeed, in a purpling Texas, his liberal bona fides almost flipped a Senate seat that had been beet red for a quarter century. Beginning his political career with a seat on El Paso City Council, O’Rourke has since advocated for drug legalization, health benefits for same-sex and unmarried partners in El Paso and consistently defended immigrants’ rights, speaking out against militarizing the border. He also also defended the right to abortion, pressured Obama to close Guantanamo, and even called for the NSA to restrict its domestic surveillance programs.
Calls for marijuana legalization have worked their political magic for O’Rourke in the past. It helped him win his 2012 House primary against former Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes. And championing legalization gave O’Rourke a major leg up against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. How far it takes him in a crowded field of like-minded politicians, however, is still up in the air.