Shenna Bellows, the Democratic candidate for the 2014 Maine Senate race, calls herself a progressive and a libertarian. A former director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Bellows supports bold action on climate change, a higher minimum wage, and less government surveillance. She is also the most prominent Senate candidate to boast her support for legalizing marijuana during a campaign.
Bellows faces a very tough road. In November polling, her opponent Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) remained among the top five most popular senators in the country, with a 61-percent approval rating.
Perhaps because of this, Bellows isn’t interested in avoiding controversy or tough questions. In the past, positions that could be considered soft-on-crime were the third rail for political candidates. There have been early signs this is changing, as now-Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) was successfully elected with criminal justice reform as a prominent feature of his campaign, and the Obama administration has conceded over the past few months that the United States imprisons too many people for too long. Unlike other candidates, Bellows is explicitly linked to support for marijuana and criminal justice reform through her ACLU experience, and says she’s proud of the ACLU’s leadership on this issue. So she’s taking another tack, in a move that could test the political viability of supporting marijuana legalization at the federal level.
In a conversation with ThinkProgress, Bellows explained that she envisions herself as a Senate leader on marijuana reform.
“Right now on the Senate side, there doesn’t seem to be a leader who has the courage to move that forward,” Bellows said. “I would be that leader.” In fact, no senator seems to have explicitly supported federal marijuana legalization, although some including Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Booker have at least spoken out against the current prohibition regime. Although several marijuana reform bills have been proposed in the House, none have been proposed in the Senate.
“I’m not gonna win by being overly cautious or afraid of what people think about who I am or what I represent,” Bellows said. “I may win by being bolder and more honest about the change this country needs. So supporting marijuana legalization is being smart on crime because there are real crimes that do harm to our communities, crimes against persons, that we absolutely need to address. And we need to fund our police departments and our local infrastructure. But when we waste government resources in locking nonviolent offenders up and more resources on spying on ordinary Americans, then that is reducing resources available to really focus on those people who would do us real harm.”
Like many who support marijuana legalization, Bellows also points to over-criminalization and incarceration from the War on Drugs that disproportionately impacts minorities and low-income individuals as along the primary reasons for reform. “Even in Maine, one of the whitest states in the country, people of color are twice as likely to be stopped and arrested … for marijuana offenses than white people,” she said. “And that has enormous human rights and civil rights costs in our community. … I mean when you have three U.S. presidents acknowledging marijuana use, while young, primarily black men, low-income men, are being locked up on a daily basis for the same behaviors, then something is dramatically wrong and needs to change.”
Bellows’ position jibes with the growing belief that drug abuse should be treated as a public health rather than criminal issue, which is why she also supports sentencing reform and other moves to address over-incarceration from punishment for other drugs.
But on marijuana legalization, Bellows hasn’t committed to a particular proposal. Her goal, she said, would be to “reach out and work around shared principles” to gain consensus on some sort of marijuana reform. “Maybe decriminalization comes first. And maybe federal medical marijuana comes first. But I think that all three are achievable within a decade.”