On the Hill and the Trail, Democrats Want to Push Pot Legalization

Key members are eyeing broad legislation on the topic, and some in the party believe the issue can be a big winner at the polls.

AP Photo/Josh Edelson
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
April 27, 2018, 1:53 p.m.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is on board. Former Speaker John Boehner is on board. Yet members of Congress still think the institution has been too slow to embrace the movement to decriminalize or even legalize marijuana.

A group of progressive lawmakers want to change that, hoping that if Democrats win majorities in Congress in November, they can bring legislation to the floor to once and for all end the federal prohibition of marijuana.

Among those voices is the Congressional Black Caucus, which held an hour-long private discussion on the topic Wednesday. The group’s chairman, Rep. Cedric Richmond, said they plan to release a statement of principles on the issue as soon as next month. Like Schumer’s bill, the principles will likely call for federal decriminalization of marijuana and removal of the plant from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Schedule 1 classification, which includes drugs such as methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin.

But more pointedly, Richmond added, he is pushing for the group to endorse restorative justice and the expungement of marijuana convictions for those affected by the war on drugs, many of whom are young African-American men represented by members of the caucus.

“Schumer’s bill is not bad, but there’s a whole set of collateral consequences of the marijuana policy for all of these decades,” he said. During the meeting, he added, “Most people went on to [talk about] the war on drugs, the effects it’s having in our community. Why would you have marijuana on the same schedule with opioids and all of these other drugs?”

Richmond said he supports another bill from Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Barbara Lee, which would do all of the above but go farther in some respects, cutting federal funding for law enforcement in states found to disproportionately arrest and convict low-income and minority residents and creating a community reinvestment fund to train those populations for jobs in the cannabis industry.

The push reflects the growing support among the American electorate for relaxed drug laws relating to cannabis. The Pew Research Center found in January that about six in 10 voters support legalizing marijuana, while a Fox News poll from February similarly found that 59 percent of voters support the policy.

A Gravis Marketing poll in March of voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, meanwhile, found that a majority of voters there support recreational marijuana. President Trump won the district by 20 points, but a Democrat, Rep. Conor Lamb, won a March special election there against a Republican, Rick Saccone, who did not support even legalized medical marijuana.

Those numbers have liberal pundits wondering why Democrats aren’t pushing the issue harder. HBO late-night host and noted marijuana aficionado Bill Maher, for instance, dedicated an entire bit to the topic on a recent show, calling for Democrats to approach marijuana with single-issue politics, the way Republicans do guns.

“Hey Democrats, you’re going to lose this issue if you’re not careful, because now Republicans smell the money,” Maher said, after noting Boehner joined the board of a recreational marijuana company. “What we need is a sweetener to rouse the liberal base and I think pot would do the trick.”

“That’s smart,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a freshman Democrat who represents Silicon Valley. “I know there’s evidence that people get active on that, that they will be passionate, turn out.

“I think it will help mobilize our base. Do I think it’s an issue that is going to impact swing voters? I don’t know. But I think what’s important is it will send a signal to young voters and to our base that this party’s bold, they’re actually going to change something, they stand for something.”

As an example, he said he recently filmed two videos for the video-news website NowThis: one about the contribution of immigrants to Silicon Valley and another about how legalizing marijuana would create jobs. The first got about 100,000 views, the second, more than 1.5 million.

Khanna, a cosponsor of the Booker-Lee bill, said he wants to push Democratic leadership to include ending marijuana prohibition in their Better Deal agenda, a document outlining what they would do if they control congressional majorities in Congress.

“If someone wants to disagree in their district they should be free to do so, but it should be the platform position of the Democratic Party,” Khanna said. “Where you stand on this should be defining in terms of being a progressive Democrat. I’m not sure you can’t be for legalization and really be part of the progressive party.”

Across the aisle, some voices in the GOP have come around to supporting elements of cannabis decriminalization. Notably, Sen. Cory Gardner has been an advocate for Colorado’s legalization, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte recently signed onto a bill to expedite medical-marijuana research, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has become an advocate for legal hemp.

Yet the party also includes more strident voices for prohibition, for instance Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who famously said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana;” Rep. Andy Harris, who has fought against the District of Columbia’s legalization efforts; and President Trump, who reportedly nixed Israel’s plan to export marijuana.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she supports leaving it up to the states to decide how to enforce marijuana laws and she has supported decriminalization efforts in her own state of California. Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill did not rule out adding to the agenda.

“Leader Pelosi and the [Democratic Policy Communication Committee] cochairs continue to reach out to members about future components to the Better Deal agenda,” he said.

Richmond said he hasn’t seen hard evidence that voters vote based on their stance on marijuana, but he said younger voters and community activists are paying attention to the issue and pushing for change, and it is incumbent for leaders to listen to them.

Rep. Jared Polis said the same of the burgeoning marijuana businesses, which in total is a billion-dollar industry in his home state of Colorado with more than 20,000 full-time jobs. He said that at the very least, people who have a livelihood in the industry vote based on a candidate’s stance on the issue. For recreational users, it’s more about freedom, he said.

“People don’t like nanny-state Republicans telling them what they can or can’t do in their own homes,” he said. “I think the movement is growing and Congress is slow to react to that. It’s at incumbents’ own peril if they’re running for reelection if they’re on the wrong side of the vast majority of their own electorate on that issue.”

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