Soros’s case for legal pot could become basis for Dem ‘wedge’ strategy

George Soros isn't the sort of guy you picture as the poster boy for legalized pot. But even though it's unlikely that the 80-year-old mega-financier has ever attended a Phish concert, he has backed plenty of high-profile liberal causes -- and he came out Tuesday with a pro-legalization op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Soros hits many of the points that pot advocates have long raised on behalf of legalization. He says "marijuana laws are clearly doing more harm than good," adding that its criminalization has done little to "prevent marijuana from becoming the most widely used illegal substance in the United States and many other countries." He goes on to argue that there are the financial and policy upsides of legalizing weed, such as bulking up the beleaguered bottom lines of many state governments, while significantly reducing crime.

California is putting such arguments to the test in the ballot box next week, via Proposition 19, a voter initiative to legalize pot. Through most of the campaign season, polling on the initiative has shown broad voter support -- though in recent days, the proposal has lost ground and may be in danger of defeat next Tuesday.

Still, there may be some indication, in the bigger picture, that a shift in opinion behind pot legalization could help Democrats -- traditionally more lenient on drug-war issues than the GOP -- by energizing the party's liberal base, particularly among younger voters, who would disproportionately tend, shall we say, to experience the benefits of pot legalization firsthand. That's one reason that libertarian-leaning political blogger Andrew Sullivan, among others, has taken to asking, "Where's the pro-cannabis left?"

Soros's decision to weigh in for legalization represents at least a partial answer to that question. A major backer of Democratic politics, Soros has the means to mold and shape the party's political agenda, as many of the right have long argued that he does. So it's little wonder that Soros would highlight the traditional pro-pot arguments in broad social-justice terms likely to appeal to traditional liberals.

Writes Soros:

Regulating and taxing marijuana would simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs, while providing many billions of dollars in revenue annually. It also would reduce the crime, violence and corruption associated with drug markets, and the violations of civil liberties and human rights that occur when large numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens are subject to arrest. Police could focus on serious crime instead.

The racial inequities that are part and parcel of marijuana enforcement policies cannot be ignored. African-Americans are no more likely than other Americans to use marijuana but they are three, five or even 10 times more likely—depending on the city—to be arrested for possessing marijuana. I agree with Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, when she says that being caught up in the criminal justice system does more harm to young people than marijuana itself. Giving millions of young Americans a permanent drug arrest record that may follow them for life serves no one's interests.

If Prop. 19 reverses its current fall in the polls and carries the day, it's a safe bet that more liberal Democrats will push such arguments in the 2012 election cycle. The idea would be for Democrats to employ legalization as a wedge issue (a tactic that many observers think has succeeded for Republicans on issues like gay marriage) to drive 2012 voters to the polls, especially in crucial presidential-election swing states. Just such a strategy was advocated by Bill Maher on his HBO show Friday night. It would involve getting marijuana legalization initiatives onto ballots in multiple states where a strong turnout by young voters could swing the elections to the Democrats.

(Photo of Soros: AP)