Marijuana Vote Poses November Risk For Democrats

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House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the lead sponsor of a bill that would remove the penalties for marijuana, said the calls for criminal justice reform pushed the bill from committee limbo to a vote on the floor. Photo: Shutterstock

They argue legalization is a racial justice issue, but critics question the timing in the midst of a pandemic and high-stakes presidential contest.

Democrats are taking an unprecedented gamble this month: voting to legalize cannabis at the federal level.

The MORE Act would remove the penalties for marijuana, erase some criminal records and create grant programs for people hit especially hard by the war on drugs.

Democrats say the timing is perfect: Support has been building for loosening marijuana restrictions over the last decade, with the most recent Gallup poll showing 66 percent of Americans favor legalization, including more than half of Republicans.

The demands for racial justice that have ratcheted up following the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd gave the bill the final push it needed to get a floor vote.

“You have sort of a convergence of all of these movements and issues and hype,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the cannabis caucus. “I think this is the perfect time to move it onto the floor [and] over to the Senate.”

But the vote comes with risks. It’s landing in the midst of a stalemate between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House over a new coronavirus aid bill, raising worries about the optics of focusing on marijuana during a pandemic.

Republicans mocked Democrats at the Republican National Convention for declaring cannabis businesses essential enough to remain open during the early days of the pandemic, and repeatedly ridiculed them for including a provision to give banks legal cover for serving the marijuana industry in their most recent coronavirus relief bill.

“I do find it ironic that the only small businesses the Democrats seem to be worried about are cannabis shops,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who cast one of two Republican votes in favor of the bill in the House Judiciary Committee last November. “But I would support this bill whenever it is brought to a vote.”

The Trump administration has largely ignored the growing public support for marijuana legalization, and President Donald Trump’s first Attorney General Jeff Sessions actually repealed protections the Obama administration created for states that legalized cannabis. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden doesn’t support legalization, but he backs making medical marijuana accessible and removing criminal penalties for cannabis on the federal level. His running mate diverges: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) sponsors the Senate version of the bill.

As more states legalize medical marijuana, recreational cannabis, or both — at least four states will put recreational legalization on the ballot in November — over 250,000 people remain in prison for nonviolent drug offenses at the state or federal level. According to the ACLU, Black people are on average four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people — and in some states the ratio is as high as 10 to one — even though studies have shown they use the drug at comparable rates.

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the bill’s lead sponsor, also said the calls for criminal justice reform pushed the bill from committee limbo to a vote on the floor.

“We always had the intention of doing this,” Nadler said, but “the increasing consciousness of the … Black Lives Matter movement also helped a great deal.”

House leadership feels confident they have the votes, even from some more moderate Democrats.

But some pollsters say the House vote could muddle the party’s message with just weeks to go before Election Day, especially considering that Biden isn’t on board with blanket marijuana legalization.

“You’re harming your ability to defeat Donald Trump,” argued Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster with North Star Opinion Research. “He and his Republican allies get to say, ‘See, Joe Biden’s not going to be in control. Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are in control.’”

Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said the pandemic, civil unrest and enacting a federal budget are among the more pressing issues for Americans at the moment. “You’re telling me that legalizing marijuana is a higher priority than all those things?” Thompson said.

House Democrats argue that the chamber passed coronavirus legislation in May, and Senate Republicans are to blame for the holdup in additional aid. Passing this bill in the meantime, they say, will prove to voters what kinds of progressive legislation the Democrat party can pass and help propel them to take back the Senate.

“It’ll become an issue that the Republicans couldn’t bring it up, and then you gotta have a Democratic majority to get it to a vote,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a co-sponsor and vocal supporter of the MORE Act.

Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine and Dan Sullivan of Alaska are all in tough races in states where marijuana is legal. In Arizona and Montana — where incumbent Republican Sens. Martha McSally and Steve Daines could also lose their seats — legal weed is on the ballot this November.

“I think this is going to be brought up in all these contested Senate races,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

A spokesperson for the Biden campaign declined to discuss the legislation and instead referred to the nominee’s past statements on the issue.

According to his campaign, Biden believes that “no one should be in jail for using marijuana.” He supports removing criminal penalties and expunging past records, but wants to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act. The Controlled Substances Act is a list of all federally banned substances which became law in 1970, and it has five tiers, or “schedules.” Schedule II drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines are deemed to have medical use, but high potential for abuse.

In July, the DNC adopted Biden’s position on cannabis — a step back from the pro-legalization platform of 2016. But advocates reason now that the former VP’s platform is essentially in line with the MORE Act, arguing that both want to remove criminal penalties, expunge records and let states decide how to further legalize.

“He supports ‘decriminalization,’ right?” Queen Adesuyi of the Drug Policy Alliance said. “Where we’re in conflict with Biden is his consideration of rescheduling. Technically, on the federal level, decriminalization is what the MORE Act … is doing.”

But Kevin Sabet, president of anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, points out that criminal penalties for marijuana use can be eliminated without turning it into a massive, for-profit industry.

“A lot of people are going to be benefiting from this that are not people of color or poor communities,” Sabet said. “The poorest communities are going to suffer as a result of this. Ask anybody living in a poor community if they think they need more things like liquor stores or pot shops.”

But all these concerns haven’t resonated with Democrats, and even some moderates in tough races are on board with the marijuana vote.

In 2018, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) squeaked out a three percentage point win in a district which Trump won two years before. Her seat is on the line this year, but she isn’t worried about how voting for cannabis legalization could affect her campaign.

“All three candidates in my race have the same position on [legalization],” said Luria, who is running against former Republican Rep. Scott Taylor and independent David Foster. Luria beat then-incumbent Taylor in the 2018 election. “I think we need to show that we want to take action on this as a priority.”