Candidates and Legionnaires discover the pot issue (in a good way)

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Paul Danish/Sue France

There were two interesting developments recently that show how American public opinion is shifting on marijuana — one involving an Ohio Supreme Court justice and the other involving the American Legion.

Ohio Supreme Court justice William O’Neill is considering running for state governor on a pro-pot platform Wikimedia Commons/Ohio Progressive

The Supreme Court justice is William O’Neill, a Democrat. Last week he delivered a prepared speech to the Wayne County (south of Cleveland) Democratic Party in which he called for the legalization and taxation of marijuana in Ohio, according to the Associated Press.

He also called for releasing all non-violent marijuana offenders from prison.

“The time has come for new thinking,” he said. “We regulate and tax alcohol and tobacco and imprison people for smoking grass.”

What made these remarks interesting, other than the fact that a state Supreme Court justice made them, is that O’Neill is considering stepping down from the bench and running for Ohio governor next year.

He said the Democratic Party needed new ideas in 2018 if it wanted to knock off Republicans, who control all branches of Ohio’s state government.

Well, O’Neill has a new idea, alright — not that marijuana should be legalized, regulated and taxed, nor that non-violent pot offenders should be let out of prison, but that a serious gubernatorial candidate in a major state can run on a pro-legalization platform.

That is new. When it comes to marijuana, most American politicians have a) campaigned as drug war showboats, b) run from the issue like frightened mice or c) ignored the issue altogether and hoped no one noticed.

The concept of trying to win statewide elected office by running on ending the war on pot hasn’t been done before — unless you happened to be a Libertarian or other minor party candidate.

Yet that appears to be what O’Neill is contemplating. The fact that his legalization message was delivered as part of prepared remarks at a Democratic Party event rather than as an incidental aside strongly suggests he’s serious about it.

And making legalization a major issue in Ohio may not be as quixotic as conventional political wisdom might suppose.

Assuming the views of Ohio voters aren’t much different from those of other Americans on pot, there should be overwhelming support for legalization among Democrats, which is important since O’Neill will be running in a Democratic primary. If he gets traction from the issue, it will push the other Democrats toward supporting legalization.

And if legalization becomes a major issue in the Democratic primary, it could spill over into the general election.

I can’t think of a single case of marijuana legalization becoming a major issue in a statewide campaign for public office, but if O’Neill’s political instincts are correct, that might be about to change.

And that could be a big deal, because there is nothing that could more quickly bring the war on pot to an end than drug war dead-ender candidates for public office losing elections.

What came out of the American Legion, the country’s largest veterans’ organization, isn’t nearly as dramatic, but still represents a major shift in thinking.

The Legion sent a letter to the White House last month that, among other things, called on the Trump Administration “to clear the way for clinical research in the cutting edge areas of cannabinoid receptor research” by changing marijuana’s status from a Schedule I controlled substance to a status that will allow research on its value for treating veterans with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Legion’s national director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation says the request speaks to a catch-22 regarding the feds’ pot policy.

“On one hand the government claims there is no federally approved scientific evidence to support cannabis being used in a medical environment, so they refuse to consider reclassifying it,” he told The Denver Post. “And on the other hand they refused to permit scientific research because it’s a Schedule I substance.”

While emphasizing that the Legion isn’t calling for legalization, Joe Plenzler, its director of media relations, said it’s time the federal government “took action to remove barriers to scientific research on this very important subject.”

When it comes to marijuana legalization, the Legion isn’t exactly planning to hold a joint Fourth of July picnic with NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project. But when a conservative organization of its stature quits stone-walling on pot and announces it’s ready to follow the science, it means the drive to end reefer madness is gaining irreversible legitimacy.

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