The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) platform committee on Monday rejected an amendment calling on the party to support marijuana legalization as an official 2020 policy plank.
Several delegates testified in favor of the proposal, arguing that legalization and ending the war on drugs will help resolve racial inequities and stimulate the economy. But following discussion of the measure, it was shot down in a 50-106 vote, with three abstentions. The panel opted to keep the language included in a draft platform that was released last week.
That document calls for decriminalizing cannabis possession, automatic expungements of prior marijuana convictions, federal rescheduling through executive action, legalizing medical cannabis and allowing states to set their own laws. Like presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, it stops short of endorsing adult-use legalization.
The language very closely echoes recommendations released earlier this month by criminal justice reform task force that Biden and former primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) organized.
“We cannot ignore the fact that the current marijuana criminalization policy has in too many cases been used to target people of color,” delegate Dennis Obduskey, who introduced the amendment, said. “They are unfairly and disproportionately six times more likely to be arrested than other citizens.”
Iowa County Supervisor Stacey Walker, who served as a member of the Biden-Sanders criminal justice task force, testified in support of the proposal, stating that black people are “overpoliced and brutalized over the same trace amounts of marijuana that white kids in this country are using without fear of repercussion or consequence.”
“I’m imploring all of you to approach this with an open mind and heart. Do something big here,” he said. “Take one small but meaningful step toward changing the course of history. If my black life matters to you, you will consider this amendment. We want to get in good trouble today, and I urge you to do the right thing and support it.”
Louisiana Sen. Cleo Fields (D) testified that he felt the existing platform proposal already represents “ambitious agenda” and opposed the legalization amendment. He said delegates should “respect the efforts of our unity task force that produced it by retaining its current form.”
Bakari Sellers, an attorney and former South Carolina lawmaker, spoke in favor of the measure.
“I understand that sometimes these efforts we have to stand in headwinds and sometimes we may feel as if we don’t go far enough,” he said. “But I think Democrats should support efforts like the Marijuana Justice Act that remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol and impose the federal excise tax on marijuana.”
“I think that we actually have to do something about the problem to unravel mass incarceration,” he said. “I think that it’s strictly unfair that when I represent a young black kid for trafficking marijuana in South Carolina where his criminal offenses are stacked one after another and there are white boys in Colorado and California making a billion dollars off of it, I just see the inherent unfairness of that.”
“I stand in favor of legalizing marijuana,” he concluded. “I stand in favor of doing what’s right by unraveling mass incarceration and investing those dollars in black and brown communities that were disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.”
While the measure was defeated, it did receive more favorable votes that a proposal for the party to support Medicare For All as part of its 2020 platform.
Here’s part of the draft plan that the platform committee approved:
“Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level. We will support legalization of medical marijuana, and believe states should be able to make their own decisions about recreational use. The Justice Department should not launch federal prosecutions of conduct that is legal at the state level. All past criminal convictions for cannabis use should be automatically expunged.”
“Substance use disorders are diseases, not crimes. Democrats believe no one should be in prison solely because they use drugs,” the draft document states. “And rather than involving the criminal justice system, Democrats support increased use of drug courts, harm reduction interventions, and treatment diversion programs for those struggling with substance use disorders.”
The DNC in 2016 similarly adopted a plank asserting that “states should be laboratories of democracy on the issue of marijuana, and those states that want to decriminalize marijuana should be able to do so.”
But it also seemed more open to broader changes, stating that the party supports “reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty.”
The party explicitly stated in the earlier document that there should be a “a reasoned pathway for future legalization.”
This year’s draft platform doesn’t say anything about taking steps to broader cannabis legalization and makes no mention of the marijuana industry.
Beyond cannabis, the drafting committee included a provision that argues it is “past time to end the failed ‘War on Drugs,’ which has imprisoned millions of Americans— disproportionately people of color—and hasn’t been effective in reducing drug use.”
“Democrats support policies that will reorient our public safety approach toward prevention, and away from over-policing—including by making evidence-based investments in jobs, housing, education, and the arts that will make our nation fairer, freer, and more prosperous,” it says.
The platform will be formally approved by delegates at the Democratic National Convention next month.
Earlier in the committee meeting, another delegate gave emotional testimony, shaming the body for proposing draft policy planks that she said fall short of the progressive ideals to which they should aspire.
The party should back the BREATHE Act, activist and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said, referring to a wide-ranging proposal that includes provisions to decriminalize drugs, expunge prior drug convictions and defund the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), among other reforms.
I’m first paying tribute to @repjohnlewis by speaking the truth and telling our story. Honoring his legacy compells us to change the course of history.
It’s time for the #BREATHEact—an agenda of how Black people in America can not only survive, but thrive.
— patrisse cullors (@OsopePatrisse) July 27, 2020
“My role here today is also to give voice to the BREATHE Act—our century’s unedited Civil Rights Act, penned by leaders from across our nation with a movement for black lives and working tirelessly to defend black lives and to hold our leaders accountable to your promises to enhance the self-determination of black communities,” she said. “The BREATHE Act is a love letter and agenda setting forth how black people in America can not only survive but thrive.”
Please hear my emotional plea. We are asking you to join us.
Join me in being bold and courageous in this time. #BREATHEact
— patrisse cullors (@OsopePatrisse) July 27, 2020
Cullors cited provisions of the proposal, text of which has not yet been released, that call for ending federal grants to provide local police with militarized equipment and abolishing DEA and other law enforcement agencies.
“Until and unless our leaders, become signatory to the BREATHE Act… the Democratic party of today will be remembered as the party of complicity, the party that refused to sacrifice its own comforts and material securities to ensure it walk the walk,” she said. “Before you leave today, I want you to answer this question for yourself: Which side of history is my party actually on? Which side of history am I actually on?”
“If you’re not careful, the Democratic Party will miss its greatest opportunity to lead our country to the true American Revolution,” she said.
Valerie Alexander, another delegate, said in the meeting that the party’s existing platform will “end the failed war on drugs, which has imprisoned millions of Americans and disproportionately people of color and hasn’t been effective in reducing drug use.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.