The chances of Gary Chambers winning next November are slim. Blue America has endorsed him because he would make a great senator, because there is a difference between slim and non-existent and because there are voters in the great red state of Louisiana who are going to learn something from Gary about what the difference is between a progressive and a conservative. (Besides, who wouldn't love seeing Gary interacting with two ancient sticks in the mud like Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer?)
Yesterday, Gary had his first big victory-- and, believe me, it was big, something every underdog candidate prays for. He captured the attention of the media, which had been entirely ignoring his campaign before that. See that video up top? It's been all over the news; everywhere. Below is the official launch video he released last week; it's absolutely fantastic... but virtually no one has seen it. This is the guy we'd like to see in the Senate representing the state of Louisiana instead of John Kennedy. Watch:
It's almost 3 minutes long, rich in policy and short on sensationalism. How many people are going to watch that? He was saving the sensationalistic slam for the followup... and it worked, not just in Louisiana, but all over the country. He knew that, though it's 2022, people are still astounded by, of all things, pot smoking.
The Washington Post didn't mention him jumping into the Senate race. But hours after the release of the pot video, Gary got a whole glowing column by ace writer Paul Waldman, A pot-smoking candidate reminds us how far we have to go on cannabis and not one, but two straight news stories, this one and then this one. Gary appears to know what makes "news." Fox covered him, as did USA Today and so did Rupert Murdoch's NY Post. Who else? Rolling Stone, HuffPo, two big stories for Yahoo, his one and this one... let's see: Boing Boing, People and Newsweek. There was even international coverage!
Gary's a fighter for Justice. Paul Waldman noted that "Every underdog candidate for office looks for a way to make a splash with an unusual move that gets everyone repeating your name, if only for a moment. Republicans often do it by putting up ads in which they fire some guns, but after a dozen other candidates do that, it loses its edge. So hats off to Gary Chambers of Louisiana, who did something in a new campaign ad in his bid for U.S. Senate that I don’t think any candidate has done before: Smoke marijuana. In the ad. And not some elegantly subtle vape pen either, but a big fat blunt, which Chambers smokes as his voice-over describes the toll of the war on drugs. Is it a stunt? Sure. And Chambers is a long shot, to say the least. An activist and community organizer, he has never held public office, though he has run unsuccessfully for a couple of lower offices. And he’s trying to unseat Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican incumbent running in a state Donald Trump won by almost 20 points in 2020."
Nevertheless, Chambers’ ad is a significant marker in changing ideas about cannabis. He isn’t running as a joke; even if the odds are against him, he’s trying to be a serious candidate. If I had told you in 2000 that in 2022 you’d see a Senate candidate smoking pot in one of his ads, you probably wouldn’t have believed me.
But the cultural and political status of marijuana have changed rapidly, with two-thirds of the public now supporting outright legalization (including half of Republicans ). If it’s not smack dab in the mainstream, it’s no longer counterculture either.
The legal landscape has certainly changed. In the 2020 election, voters approved legalization initiatives in New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota and Montana. In 2021, legislatures in Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia passed legalization laws. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now allow recreational use, and perhaps more remarkably, there are only three states-- Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas-- where all cannabis products are illegal.
With it being so obvious that most Americans are now fine with legalization, you don’t see Republicans promising to crack down on pot smokers, even if their policy positions are remnants of the drug war. It functions similarly to their position on marriage equality: While most haven’t actually changed their beliefs, they know they’re on the wrong side of public opinion, so it’s something they prefer not to talk about.
But the Biden administration hasn’t taken the political opportunity afforded to it by changing the federal government’s approach to cannabis-- even though it was what the president promised in the 2020 campaign. Here’s what his campaign website said on the issue:
Biden believes no one should be in jail because of cannabis use. As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions. And, he will support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, and reschedule cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.
While some of that would have to be done through legislation (and a federal decriminalization bill did pass the House in December 2020), so far Biden hasn’t done anything at all on the issue.
It’s hard not to conclude that this was one of those issues where Biden took a position he was comfortable with-- and one to the right of other candidates urging legalization, including his future vice president-- but it wasn’t something he cared about or would expend effort on. Which may not be surprising for a man who came of age in the 1950s, when cannabis was still considered an evil weed consumed only by criminals and jazz musicians.
Politicians are always a lagging indicator of change; they seldom embrace habits and ideas unless they’re sure that doing so won’t lose them support. And while plenty of officeholders (mostly Democrats) will say they have smoked pot, it’s almost always characterized as a thing they did long ago, when they were young and free of responsibilities. As Vice President Harris said in 2019, “I did inhale. It was a long time ago. But, yes.”
You’ll know that cannabis has really become mainstream when even politicians will say it’s something they partake of today , even with their weighty jobs, just as they might say that in the evening they enjoy a glass of wine or a fine single malt.
We’re not there yet, as Gary Chambers has reminded us. But sooner or later, it’s bound to happen.
That 2022 Senate thermometer above... it's a live link and if you click it, it'll take you to a page where you can contribute to Gary's campaign. I hope you do, even if it's just $5 or $10. As you can see, he knows how to make a dollar work. North Carolina progressive Erica Smith and Gary Chambers are comrades and allies. Last night she told me she's "had the privilege of spending meaningful time with Gary Chambers, traveling across North Carolina and holding multiple town halls and backyard conversations together. Gary's an activist, a public servant, and an incredible leader. He's demonstrated not just with his words, but also with his actions, a relentless commitment to racial, environmental, and economic justice. He's going to win this seat for the people and he's going to do a phenomenal job advocating for them in the Senate!"