On Wednesday with little fanfare Gov. John Kasich ( R) signed into law Ohio’s medical marijuana bill, in part to head off a medical marijuana ballot initiative campaign in the state. The new law will allow patients with certain conditions to get a doctor’s recommendation to use medical marijuana, which they will be able to acquire from state licensed dispensaries. This makes Ohio the 25th state (plus the District of Columbia) to adopt a real medical marijuana law. This is not simply a big psychological victory for the reform movement but a very significant political milestone because of the unique design of Congress.
Representation in the House is based on population, and a majority of Americans already live in states with medical marijuana thanks to the passage of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania early this year. But the Senate gives equal representation to the states regardless of population; every state gets two senators. Now thanks to this new Ohio law, half of the members of both houses of Congress represent areas with local medical marijuana. This has a powerful impact on the federal debate over marijuana.
The issue of marijuana has stopped being theoretical for a majority of members of Congress and will soon be very tangible as these new states set up their medical marijuana programs. The fact that half of the senators and the majority of House members will now be representing districts with medical marijuana does not necessarily mean they will support federal marijuana reform, but it will exert a significant pressure on them going forward. They will have numerous patients, doctors, medical marijuana growers, testing labs, and dispensary owners in their districts that would be both physically and financially hurt by any federal crackdown or helped by any positive federal reforms.
Politically, it is dramatically easier to oppose something in concept than it is to actively take something away from your constituents they currently have. This why defense contractors spread projects over as many states as possible, like the flawed F-35, which has suppliers in 45 states and the M1 Abrams tank that the Army no longer even wants but keeps buiding since its parts are made in numerous states. Having the programs employ people in so many states makes them hard for politicians to oppose even when they are clearly flawed.
The important political question in Congress is no longer how most members feel about marijuana reform in the abstract. The question is now whether a majority of members are willing to directly take something away from their constituents.