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A Top Senate Democrat Raises Concerns About Legalizing Marijuana In Break With Party

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Illinois seems poised to legalize marijuana in 2019, but a top Democrat who represents the state in the U.S. Senate is urging lawmakers to pump the brakes.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), the second top ranking Democrat in the chamber, said last week that criminalizing cannabis and subjecting people to punitive treatment for consuming marijuana is “extreme.” But he followed up by saying “now we’ve got to take care that we don’t go to the other extreme” by fully legalizing, a prospect he claimed can lead to an “increase in traffic accidents.”

The top Democrat also asserted that “certain mental health conditions seem to be more prevalent in those states” that have legalized cannabis.

The comments put the senator at odds with Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker (D), who made legalization a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign and pledged to move toward enacting the policy “right away.” Moreover, Durbin is out of step with the vast majority of voters in his party, 75 percent of whom now back legalization.

In fact, his position stands in contrast to another long-standing top congressional Democrat, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Whereas Durbin has maintained his opposition to broad reform, Schumer has evolved on the issue over time and even introduced legislation to remove cannabis from the list of federally banned substance last year.

In an interview with The State Journal-Register published on Saturday, Durbin recommended reading a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, which was based on a widely refuted book that attempts to link cannabis legalization to mental illness and violence. He said the article raises “legitimate clinical questions that should be asked and tested.”

He also expressed concerns about how to prevent impaired driving. There were “possible good answers when it came to alcohol,” he said, “but when it comes to marijuana, I think we’re in new territory.”

“Senator Durbin is usually wiser than to allow a cherry-picked opinion piece inform his policy views,” Michael Liszewski, principal with The Enact Group, a cannabis-focused lobbying and consulting firm, told Marijuana Moment.

“If he took a comprehensive look at the data, he’d realize that crime and teen use typically fall with legalization,” Liszewski said. “Reports of increases of marijuana being associated with traffic accidents have more to do with data collection around marijuana post-legalization, as evidenced by highway fatalities generally holding steady. These are things Senator Durbin would know if he took a harder look at the facts.”

Durbin has voiced support for medical cannabis laws, and has generally voted in favor of marijuana-related amendments in the Senate Appropriations Committee. But he’s declined to proactively co-sponsor any marijuana legislation with the exception of a limited CBD research bill. And in 2016, he opposed an amendment designed to protect medical cannabis patients and doctors that recommend it.

He’s consistently drawn the line at adult-use legalization.

In 2013, Durbin told The Chicago Tribune in a since-deleted article that “we are evolving toward a situation where there are less punitive responses to the use of marijuana,” but cautioned against fully legalizing. He said he worried about marijuana being a “gateway” to more dangerous drugs and that he personally knew families whose children became addicted.

“Given Senator Durbin’s long record of support for comprehensive criminal justice reform and other evidence-driven policies, it is disheartening to hear him take this slow position in the face of so much data coming out of the legal markets,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “With over 29,000 peer-reviewed studies hosted on the [National Institute of Health] website, and eight functioning adult-use regulatory bodies around the country, it is no longer acceptable to say that legalization is ‘extreme.'”

Indeed, all of Durbin’s Senate Democratic colleagues who have announced bids for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination support legalizing marijuana.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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