Marijuana is about to be a huge issue in one of the most high-profile U.S. Senate races of 2018.
Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who supports cannabis legalization, announced on Friday that he is standing against Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s bid to be reelected to a second term next year.
“We have an opportunity to end this failed war on drugs,” O’Rourke said in his announcement speech.
“We have an opportunity, after more than half the states in this union have stopped locking people up for marijuana convictions — have filled our jails so that we imprison more of own people than any other country — and make sure that we help those who are struggling with addiction, with drug use, find a better way, a connection to the help and the care that they deserve.”
In an interview last year, O’Rourke made it clear that he supports legalizing marijuana.
The failed war on drugs is probably more responsible for O’Rourke’s initial election to Congress than is any other factor.
In 2009, as a member of El Paso’s City Council, O’Rourke sponsored an amendment to resolution calling on the U.S. to consider legalization as a potential solution to the grisly drug market violence taking place just over the Mexican border in Ciudad Juarez.
The resolution passed unanimously by the Council, but was vetoed by the mayor.
Amidst the debate about an override vote, then-Congressman Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat, personally lobbied members of the Council to change their votes and not move forward with the resolution, saying that federal funding for city projects would be in jeopardy if they insisted on calling for a legalization debate.
It worked, and enough Councilmembers switched their votes to sustain the veto.
O’Rourke didn’t take kindly to the federal strong-arm tactics, and ended up challenging Reyes in the 2012 Democratic Congressional primary, coming out on top despite endorsements for the incumbent from then-President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
During the hard-fought contest, which O’Rourke won by just 3,000 votes, Reyes launched attack ads centered on the challenger’s support for drug policy reform, including one featuring a montage of skeptical-looking kids and a voiceover saying, “Legalizing drugs is not the answer. Even our children understand that.”
O’Rourke went on to win the November general election and has since signed on to and voted for a number of marijuana law reform measures in the U.S. House.
Cruz, for his part, doesn’t support legalization, though he is a strong believer in the Tenth Amendment and has repeatedly said he supports states’ rights to enact their own cannabis policies.
“I actually think this is great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called ‘the laboratories of democracy,’” he said in at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2015. “If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative. I don’t agree with it, but that’s their right.”
Similarly, last April, Cruz, then a Republican primary presidential candidate, told the Denver Post, “The people of Colorado have made a different decision. I respect that decision. And it actually is an opportunity for the rest of the country to see what happens here in Colorado, see what happens in Washington State, let the states implement the policies, and if it works well, other states may choose to follow. If it doesn’t work well other states may choose not to follow.”
There are several marijuana policy reform bills pending in the Texas state legislature, including proposals to legalize medical cannabis and to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.
If a measure setting up a legal and regulated system of medical marijuana sales is enacted and puts the state into conflict with federal law, it could intensify discussion in the U.S. Senate race about how the candidates intend to protect their constituents from the Department of Justice and the DEA.