Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
A Canna Care employee waters young marijuana plants at the medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento, Calif. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told the Los Angeles Times she will vote for a California ballot measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

How public attitudes about marijuana expanded political debate

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is the highest elected official in either major party to support the legalization of marijuana. 

When Democratic US Rep. Nancy Pelosi casts her ballot in California, the House minority leader will become the highest ranking elected Democrat or Republican to support the legalization of marijuana.

Representative Pelosi told the Los Angeles Times on Friday she intends to vote for Proposition 64, which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in the state for anyone 21 and older.

Though the ballot measure is expected to pass on Tuesday, it has divided generations, grower and corporate interests, and politicians in the state. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) of California came out against the initiative early on, while Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has been a loud advocate for it.

The debate over Prop 64 ahead of Election Day echoes discussions about marijuana legalization across the country. Millennials overwhelmingly are in favor of the measure, while the opposition has concerns that range from children to motorists to morality. Money is another question, as the measure is expected to bring in billions in tax revenue and profits, but if passed, medical marijuana growers could be hurt or pushed out by corporate interests.

But it’s the way politicians are debating the issue that has changed since the last century, says some observers. As public attitudes have softened toward marijuana legalization, politicians have been able to be more forthcoming about the issue, says Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at University of California, Los Angeles, and a longtime politician in the city.  

"I think it's an honest debate," Mr. Yaroslavsky tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Society has moved well beyond the period of time when discussion of legalizing marijuana or using it was so taboo that it could pose an existential threat to a politician's career. Not anymore. Now, you can have honest points of view."

Pelosi didn’t state why she is in favor of the measure, when asked by the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board to elaborate. The Monitor could not reach her office by press time.

But Senator Feinstein has been frank about her opposition to the initiative. The state’s senior senator and the former mayor of San Francisco has long opposed the legalization of marijuana. When Feinstein officially denounced Prop 64 in July, she said she was concerned about motorists and children. Groups that represent the interests of California Law Enforcement have the same concerns.  

Mr. Newsom, the lieutenant governor and a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, has been an outspoken proponent of the initiative. A longtime supporter of the measure, he has said he is anti-prohibition, not pro-marijuana.

In a radio interview Sunday, he told Variety’s "PopPolitics" podcast that marijuana legalization would be a "game changer" across the country.

"It is the beginning of a renewed conversation about the war on drugs writ large, a referendum in many respects where we have been trying to criminalize people's behavior yet we have only wasted a trillion-plus dollars and destroyed, I would argue, many millions of lives in the process and not produced the intended result," said Newsom.  

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is considering challenging Newsom in the next gubernatorial race, endorsed the proposition at the end of October.

"I took my time on this measure because I wanted to make sure it included protections for children and public safety," Mr. Villaraigosa said in a statement. "In evaluating the measure in its entirety, I am convinced there are enough safeguards to make it a workable proposition."

Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a stance on the measure, but five former heads of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) signed a letter that has asked him to oppose it until California can see how Colorado and other states are dealing with problems that include impaired driving and marijuana use by teenagers, according to the Los Angeles Times.

California is considered a battleground state for the national movement to relax marijuana laws, since it is the country’s most populated state, home to more than 38 million people. Other states that have measures to legalize marijuana on Tuesday's ballots are Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada.

According to the federal government, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 narcotic – a classification that puts it alongside heroin. The Obama administration has opposed lifting this classification.

But today, more politicians are speaking up about decriminalization, coinciding with a shift in public opinion. National polls show more Americans than ever are in favor of the legalization of marijuana. Recent Gallup and Pew Research Center polls found a majority of Americans are in favor of legalization, with support highest among Millennials, at 71 percent. 

A similar majority of likely voters (58 percent) favor the California measure, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll released last week showed. The initiative shows its strongest support among likely voters aged 18 to 29, while only 46 percent of voters over age 64 back it.

"Young people under 35 have shifted the most over the last 10 years or more. That’s important," Frank Newport, the editor in chief of, told Yahoo News. "That's where social change usually occurs. Older people tend to be set in their ways, and that seems to be happening here as well."

And this shift, says Yaroslavsky at UCLA, has allowed politicians to have a more open discussion about how they see it.

While Pelosi is the highest ranking elected official in either major party to act out of sync with the administration’s position, an increasing number of high-ranking politicians across the country have indicated they support medical marijuana, its decriminalization, or are at least open to considering it.

"If you'd asked me this question a dozen years ago, it would have been easy to answer – I would have said no, because [marijuana] leads to other stuff. But I can't say that anymore," Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada told the Las Vegas Sun. "I think we need to take a real close look at this. I think that there's some medical reasons for marijuana."

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