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Democrats’ Focus On Social Justice Marijuana Bills Has Blocked Achievable Progress On Reform (Op-Ed)

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“The GOP wouldn’t have to steal cannabis policy reform from Democrats, they only need to pick up their fumble.”

By Don Murphy, Marijuana Leadership Campaign

Democrats have controlled both chambers of Congress for nearly two years (the House for four) and so far, cannabis policy reform advocates have nothing to show for it. The green wave they sold us has yet to be delivered. Unless you consider ‘historic’ messaging bills and tweets as wins…weed got nothin’. Democrats even failed to remove the barriers to Washington, D.C. legalizing recreational marijuana sales while the two surrounding jurisdictions of Maryland and Virginia prepare to do so.

Progressive advocacy got us nothing and progressive advocacy will get us nothing in a GOP controlled House. Failure of the left to convince the right of the benefits of ending cannabis prohibition were on full display on election night when legalization efforts were defeated in the red states of Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota.

It’s time for a new approach. It’s time to acknowledge that incrementalism is not selling out, it is not crumbs and it is not failure. Failure is continuing to lock up our citizens while we quibble over who gets the spoils of a post-prohibition world.

The next Congress will be divided, but not necessarily gridlocked. The last time we passed any cannabis legislation of significance was the adoption of budget language protecting state medical programs from federal interference in 2014. The House was red, and the Senate was blue.

Facing a similar scenario, it’s time to embrace incrementalism and compromise. It’s time for a new strategy.

Advocates should stop crowing about polls. Polls do not help where we need help. Polls don’t matter to Republicans, in fact they hurt. Most GOP candidates only need to win their primary where a higher percentage of voters oppose legalization. The only polls the GOP will be looking at are the failed legalization results in Arkansas and the Dakotas.

Advocates should stop talking about the tax revenue legalization will generate, because most of it is directed at policies and programs that aren’t supported by conservatives. Talk about the taxpayer money that won’t be spent arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people for simple possession. Talk about how much in taxes otherwise able-bodied citizens can generate when they have jobs that are commensurate with their skills and not suppressed by a drug conviction. And talk about the money we won’t spend propping up those families with a drug conviction because mom or dad are making real ‘living’ wages.

Speaking of jobs, we should talk about the hundreds of thousands of jobs in the legal cannabis industry. Every business from the MSO to the mom and pop should invite elected officials to tour their facilities and meet their employees, just as every employer should. Unless elected officials get to see firsthand how legitimate this industry is, all they know is what they saw on The Wire. If legislators vote wrong, it’s because we didn’t show them the truth. If we want to be treated like alcohol (a more harmful drug), we should act like alcohol.

A cannabis arrest is a ‘gateway’ to the criminal justice system. It can destroy a family and contributes to the cycle of poverty. Cannabis stays in your system for a month, a conviction stays on your record for a lifetime. It’s an economic death sentence.

A majority of Republicans in Congress know that the drug war is a failure and they would vote to end it. But as supporters of free market capitalism, they can’t support the big-government, top-down alternatives being proposed by House and Senate Democrats. High taxes and equity-based regulation will never get a vote in a GOP-controlled House. It didn’t get a vote from Senate Democrats, why should we expect a vote from House Republicans?

Just as Republicans supported overturning Roe because it returned the decision of abortion policy to the states, they would support a similar federalism position on prohibition. Like Dobbs, but for drugs.

Time is running out for Senate Democrats to make real progress on ending the war on weed. The SAFE Banking Act has languished in the Senate for two years while their leadership toyed with advocates, eating up the clock drafting a comprehensive bill that was dead-on-arrival.

The GOP wouldn’t have to steal cannabis policy reform from Democrats, they only need to pick up their fumble. It would make Republicans look good, while making Democrats look bad.

At a minimum, the next Congress could pass SAFE Banking with the support of pro-business, law-n-order Republicans, not because it is a cannabis bill but because it is a banking bill and a public safety bill. SAFE could finally pass the Senate with the support of progressives because of the benefit it offers small and minority-based businesses which are disproportionally impacted by a lack of capital. And House appropriators could amend budget language to protect all legal state cannabis consumers rather than just patients. That would be more progress than Congress has made in nearly a decade and by any measure it would be a win.

It’s not everything we’d like, but it’s not nothin’ either.

Named a top federal cannabis lobbyist by Politico, Don Murphy served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1995 to 2003 and is a four-time RNC Convention Delegate. He is the original lead sponsor of the Darrell Putman Compassionate Use Act, the first Republican-led medical marijuana bill to become law. Murphy founded Republicans for Compassionate Access in 2002. From 2014-21 Murphy was the federal lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project and is currently the director of government relations for the Marijuana Leadership Campaign and can be reached at [email protected]paign.org.

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