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Democrats Blew The Opportunity For Federal Cannabis Reform (Op-Ed)



“While it was always likely going to be a bit of a long shot to pass something as comprehensive as full descheduling through the Senate, many of us at least hoped that other, more incremental marijuana reform bills would move forward.”

Erik Altieri, NORML Executive Director

With the 117th Congress coming to a close, it is clear that Democratic leadership will not be able to deliver on their oft-repeated promises regarding cannabis reform.

For the past two years, we have heard assurances from the likes of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and others that cannabis reform legislation would be a priority for them. In fact, just before Democrats captured a majority in the chamber, Schumer pledged that he would prioritize advancing marijuana legalization legislation, promising. “If I become majority leader, I put this [bill repealing federal marijuana prohibition] on the floor, and it’s likely to pass.”

“If you believe in decriminalizing cannabis, the thing to do is vote for your Democratic Senate candidate because they’ll be part of my team to get this done,” Schumer said at the time.

The American people had good reason to believe them. Support for legalizing marijuana among the general public remains around 70 percent; that percentage increases to over 80 percent among those respondents who identify as Democrats. Further, national polling data provided by Morning Consult and Politico determined that a majority of Democrats, African Americans and younger voters believe that federal action on cannabis should be among Congress’ “top” or more “important” legislative priorities.

After the 2020 election, an election in which President Joe Biden had pledged to decriminalize cannabis and advance other related policy measures, the Democratic Party found itself in control of not just the presidency but also both chambers of Congress. With Schumer assuming leadership in the upper chamber, he vocalized clearly and often his intention to prioritize ending federal cannabis prohibition.

While it was always likely going to be a bit of a long shot to pass something as comprehensive as full descheduling through the Senate, many of us at least hoped that other, more incremental marijuana reform bills would move forward.

Yet, despite all of the grandstanding and promises, it was 564 days after the start of the 117th Congress before Senator Schumer and his co-sponsors finally introduced their comprehensive descheduling legislation.

Those of us that were pragmatically looking for ways to dial back our nation’s war on marijuana consumers patiently waited for that introduction, as Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) had made clear they had no intention of advancing bills such as the MORE Act (which the House passed in April of this year), the SAFE Banking Act (which the House passed on multiple occasions) or the expungements-focused HOPE Act until the larger piece of legislation was drafted and filed.

Anyone with a loose understanding of politics knew full well that Schumer’s Cannabis Administration and Opportunity act faced dire odds, especially when facing a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. Still, it has been made evident time and time again that incremental reforms had a real chance of garnering the bipartisan support needed to make it through both chambers. Nonetheless, leadership did little to take advantage of this political opportunity.

Now, with the November elections settled, we also know what awaits us for the next two years: a slim Democratic majority in the Senate and a slim GOP majority in the House of Representatives. These conditions are certainly less favorable to marijuana reform legislation than we had for the last two years.

That said, Democrats’ failure to act opens the door potentially for reform-minded members of the GOP to take the issue away from them and run with it. While there are Republicans who are keen to do just that—such as Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Nancy Mace (R-SC)—most of their party leaders will more than likely actively work to block any progress on bills such as the “SAFE Plus” package Schumer had worked to craft a deal on in the 11th hour of the current 117th Congress and anything else vaguely marijuana-related proposed in new 118th Congress.

There is no reason to expect that notorious drug warrior Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), whom Schumer blamed for blocking cannabis banking from being included in a large-scale omnibus appropriations bill, will change his position a single iota in 2023.

For the good of our country, we need Congress to act to bring an end to our failed war on cannabis; we need leaders who can see a political opportunity and use it to deliver for the American people, not just because they promised they’d do so, but because it is the right thing to do.

If the general public doesn’t see lawmakers advancing these issues, they will find their words ring hollow the next time they try to campaign on them in order to win votes. With just under two years to go until the presidential election, reformers in both parties need to prove their commitment now or risk the electoral consequences.

Erik Altieri is executive director of NORML.

Schumer Blames GOP For Marijuana Banking Failure, But Says He’ll ‘Go Back At It Next Year’

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