A GOP congressman says Democrats—and specifically the Congressional Black Caucus—are to blame for Congress’s inability to pass a federal marijuana legalization bill. That’s despite the fact that nearly every Democrat in the House voted to legalize cannabis last year while all but five Republicans voted against it.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) talked about the history of drug criminalization and the congressional response to the opioid epidemic during an episode of his “Firebrand” podcast that was released last week. He lamented that the 1970 Controlled Substances Act made “marijuana and other psychedelics more illegal than hard drugs such as the illegal, opioid-based drug heroin.”
The congressman, who was one of the handful of House Republicans who voted in favor of the comprehensive reform bill last year, has made clear that he wants to see prohibition ended. But he’s been critical of Democrats who’ve insisted that legalization measures contain specific equity provisions meant to address the collateral consequences of the drug war, suggesting that they may not be necessary and are holding up what could be a bipartisan-supported federal reform effort.
He also argues that Democrats have been “fixated on opioids” in the 117th Congress—introducing numerous pieces of legislation aimed at mitigating the crisis—but they “can’t move the marijuana bill successfully.”
Gaetz pointed to polling showing that growing majorities of Americans support cannabis legalization, including most Republicans.
“In the Congress, there are countless bills introduced to end the federal prohibition on marijuana,” he said. “Why is it still a Schedule I drug, making it more illegal than opioids?”
“Answer? The Democrats, particularly the Congressional Black Caucus,” the congressman argued.
What Gaetz seems to be hinting at is the internal party politics over equity provisions of legalization that may turn off GOP members and some moderate Democrats but are championed by progressives. With a slim majority in both chambers, Democrats need some GOP buy-in to enact the reform, and so Gaetz is shifting blame on those who insist on potentially controversial equity language.
But the blanket statement that Democrats are at fault here is reductive. After all, Democrats have led the charge on legalization, passing a reform bill in the House last year and again in the key House Judiciary Committee this session. The Senate under GOP control last Congress didn’t so much as hold a committee hearing on legalization. And most elected members of Gaetz’s own party in Congress maintain opposition to legalization, despite narrow majority support for the reform among Republican voters in recent polls.
Nonetheless, Gaetz isn’t alone in roasting Democrats for its inability to cobble together a majority to advance marijuana reform legislation to the president’s desk. On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) called out the other party for its inability to pass a cannabis banking bill through both chambers.
In the new podcast, Gaetz also argued that Florida’s medical marijuana program undermines arguments that legislation needs to be holistic from the onset, saying there’s evidence of diversity in the industry that came about through incremental reform.
He said that if you “go one step at a time, you actually can get to the restorative justice and minority access, precisely as we’ve done in the state of Florida.”
But as The Tampa Bay Times reported in September, just one of the state’s 22 licensed medical cannabis dispensary companies is owned by a person of color. There’s been widespread criticism about the lack of minority representation in Florida’s program.
In any case, Gaetz’s point about who’s to blame for the congressional inaction on marijuana reform has been the consistent source of debate among lawmakers, advocates and stakeholders.
Democrats have worked to own the issue, but they were blocked from advancing the policy change beyond the House when Republicans controlled the Senate. This year, there have been positive developments, but no legalization bills have been brought to the floor of either chamber.
To the congressman’s point, differences in legislative priorities that centered around equity did derail a recent effort to pass bipartisan cannabis banking reform this month. Some members have specifically argued that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who is finalizing a much-anticipated legalization bill and emphasized that comprehensive reform should pass first, is specifically at fault for that setback.
Regardless, pro-legalization lawmakers feel the stage is set for action in 2022.
Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), longstanding champions of reform, authored a memo this month that lists the numerous pieces of marijuana legislation that have been filed on Capitol Hill this session and then explains what to watch for next year.
“I think the stage is set for [federal legalization] to happen next year,” Blumenauer said during a briefing with reporters last week. “We have Senate leadership—they’re dealing with how to assemble a package. They all want comprehensive reform, and they have made that clear. Once we get that alignment and can move it in the Senate, I think things can happen very quickly.”
Photo courtesy of Meredith Geddings.