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Dems rally around marijuana in 2014 push

In search of an issue to shore up 2014 voter turnout, Democrats across the country are turning to pot.
Marijuana buds are seen at Harborside Health center in California.
Marijuana buds are seen at Harborside Health center in California.

Lawmakers across the country are turning to relaxed marijuana laws as a winning issue ahead of 2014.

A bi-partisan group of House members sent a letter to the White House on Wednesday morning requesting a change in federal marijuana policy. Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon led the group of 17 Democrats plus California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the drafting of the letter, asking the president to “instruct Attorney General Holder to delist or classify marijuana in a more appropriate way.” The lawmakers requested the changes in part so that businesses in states where recreational or medical marijuana is legal can deduct business expenses and receive tax credits.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 established the drug classification, or “scheduling,” system which groups drugs into five categories depending on  a given substance’s “medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential.” The Act places marijuana in the most restrictive schedule alongside heroin and MDMA.

In a recent interview, President Obama addressed marijuana’s classification, saying, "What is and isn't a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress," however the language of the act itself grants broad discretion to the attorney general to change drug scheduling.

For his part, Attorney General Eric Holder last year began relaxing the rules on the Justice Department prosecutes minor drug cases. Lawmakers in Congress have since seized on the opening to reform the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), often referred to as the "drug czar." Just a day before his House colleagues wrote to President Obama, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee filed H.R. 4046, the Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act of 2014, an act that would allow the drug czar to fund research into the legalization of Schedule 1 controlled substances including marijuana.

Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the prominent pro-legalization lobbying organization the Marijuana Policy Project, stressed a common sense rational for the legislation. “Prohibiting the drug czar’s office from studying marijuana legalization is like prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from exploring new ways to reduce pollution,” he said.

With Democratic pollsters like Celinda Lake warning of "record-low turnout of young people" in 2014, candidates and activists alike are looking at marijuana ballot initiatives and pro-pot positions to motivate voters to the polls this November. 

On Tuesday Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls in Texas, Maryland, and Pennsylvania all made statements supporting various degrees of marijuana policy reform.

In Texas, Democratic candidate Wendy Davis came out in support of medical marijuana and revealed openness to decriminalization in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. “I personally believe that medical marijuana should be allowed for,” Davis said, adding that she would support legislation to diminish criminal penalties for minor marijuana possession. The comments are the most forthright yet from Davis on the issue and come in the wake of current Gov. Rick Perry’s recent statements in favor of decriminalization.

In Maryland, Democratic state delegate and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur has been running an underdog campaign with marijuana legalization as a core agenda item.  Frontrunner Lt. Governor Anthony Brown responded to Mizeur’s call to support her Maryland Marijuana Decriminalization Act in the State Assembly with a letter calling marijuana laws, “costly ineffective and  racially biased,” and explicitly supported marijuana decriminalization for the first time.

And in Pennsylvania almost the entire Democratic field now publicly supports some form of marijuana policy reform. Rep. Allyson Schwartz lent her voice to the issue in an interview with Philadelphia Weekly in which she built upon her previous support of medical marijuana. “I do believe that marijuana is over-criminalized. And what we should do is decriminalize possession,” she said. Schwartz, an eight-point favorite to take up residence at the governor’s Mansion in Harrisburg, does not favor full legalization but said that those caught with small amounts should not receive a criminal record.