In a new memoir looking back at his time in office, former President Barack Obama writes that a decision early in his first term to cut deals with congressional Republicans allowed him to ignore some Democrats’ calls for “less orthodox ideas” such as marijuana legalization.
“Truthfully,” Obama writes in the new book, “just the act of negotiating with Republicans served as a handy excuse to deflect some of the less orthodox ideas that occasionally surfaced from our side of the aisle (‘I’m sorry, Congressman, but legalizing marijuana isn’t the kind of stimulus we’re talking about here…’).”
While the anecdote at hand is specifically about the economic stimulus package that the Obama negotiated early in his first term, his characterization of how he reacted to the push for cannabis reform is largely indicative of how he handled the issue during his presidency: By deflecting blame to Congress.
Despite being the first president to openly acknowledge having smoked—and enjoyed—marijuana before entering office, Obama mentions cannabis only a few times in the 700-plus-page “A Promised Land,” published on Tuesday. Its other discussions of drug policy, according to a review by Marijuana Moment, include references to Obama’s own past cannabis use—particularly how it sparked controversy in his campaign for president against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY)—and sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Obama writes that during his first run for president, Clinton’s campaign co-chair, Billy Shaheen—who is married to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)—had “raised to a reporter that my self-disclosed prior drug use would prove fatal in a matchup against the Republican nominee.” (Obama had famously said in a 2006 interview: “I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point.”)
“I didn’t consider the general question of my youthful indiscretions out of bounds,” Obama writes, “but Shaheen went a bit further, implying that perhaps I had dealt drugs as well. The interview set off a furor, and Shaheen quickly resigned from his post.”
Clinton later apologized to Obama during a tense conversation on an airport tarmac, the former president writes.
The new book also recalls his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who he says sometimes included critiques of the drug war in his sermons:
“There were times when I found Reverend Wright’s sermons a little over the top. In the middle of a scholarly explication of the Book of Matthew or Luke, he might insert a scathing critique of America’s drug war, American militarism, capitalist greed, or the intractability of American racism, rants that were usually grounded in fact but bereft of context. Often, they sounded dated, as if he were channeling a college teach-in from 1968 rather than leading a prosperous congregation that included police commanders, celebrities, wealthy businesspeople, and the Chicago school superintendent.”
Another of Obama’s references to drugs is apparently intended as a joke. Discussing the country’s recovery after the 2008 financial crisis, he writes that had he predicted such a swift stabilization when he came into office, pundits would’ve thought he was high.
“If I had predicted on the day of my swearing in that within a year the U.S. financial system would have stabilized, almost all TARP funds would be fully repaid (having actually made rather than cost taxpayers money), and the economy would have begun what would become the longest stretch of continuous growth and job creation in U.S. history,” Obama writes, “the majority of pundits and experts would have questioned my mental fitness—or assumed I was smoking something stronger than tobacco.”
A Promised Land, which concludes with the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden, is expected to be the first of two volumes of memoirs from the president.
While in office, Obama’s cannabis policies largely frustrated drug reformers. While significant state-level reforms happened under his watch, which he ultimately pulled back the federal government from interfering with, many advocates felt he missed an opportunity by failing to enact reform nationally, for example by reclassifying cannabis under the federal Controlled Substances Act, further easing federal prosecution of drug laws or issuing mass acts of clemency to more people with prior convictions than he ultimately did.
Though candidate Obama had said medical marijuana legalization was a question best left to the states, his administration in 2011 launched a coordinated crackdown on dispensaries in legal jurisdictions such as California. By the end of his first term, he had overseen more raids on state-legal cannabis businesses than his predecessor, President George W. Bush, did in two terms.
But the administration’s stance shifted after Colorado and Washington State voters legalized marijuana for adults in 2012, and the Obama Justice Department chose not to challenge the laws. In 2013, the administration issued the so-called Cole memo, which formally advised federal prosecutors to generally not enforce federal laws against marijuana in states with legal, well regulated markets. (The memo was scrapped by the Trump administration in 2018.)
When it came to calls to formally change marijuana’s status under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Obama deflected responsibility for the issue to lawmakers.
“What is and isn’t a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress,” he told CNN in 2014. “It’s not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws under – undergirding those determinations.”
In fact, while Congress can change cannabis’s status under federal law, the CSA also gives the administration the power to do so without an act of lawmakers.
During his time in office, advocates repeatedly called for Obama to take action on cannabis legalization, but the president was cagey on the issue. “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice,” he told the New Yorker in 2014, “not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life.”
“I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” he said of marijuana in the same interview, frustrating legalization supporters who saw him doing nothing to end its criminalization.
While he said legalization in Washington and Colorado is “important for it to go forward” as a way to address racial disparities in cannabis arrests and convictions, he predicted that the new policies in those states would “be, I think, a challenge” and worried about a slippery slope that could lead to legalization of cocaine or methamphetamines.
“Look, I’ve been very clear about my belief that we should try to discourage substance abuse.”
According to a 2018 book by a former Obama advisor, the president considered pushing to decriminalize marijuana late in his term—but then Trump won and he abandoned the idea.
In November 2016, after the election of Donald Trump as his successor, Obama told Rolling Stone that it wasn’t his place to change the nation’s marijuana policy through an executive action.
“Look, I’ve been very clear about my belief that we should try to discourage substance abuse. And I am not somebody who believes that legalization is a panacea,” he said. “But I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to do it. Typically, how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict but are done either legislatively or through the DEA.”
While he described himself as “very much in lame-duck status,” in the 2016 interview, Obama said legalization “is a debate that is now ripe.”
“There’s something to this whole states-being-laboratories-of-democracy and an evolutionary approach,” said the former constitutional law professor.
Also in the White House with Obama during the eight years of his administration was then-Vice President Joe Biden, the projected winner of November’s presidential election. As Biden—who championed punitive drug policies during his decades as a senator—begins the transition to the presidency, some legalization advocates are already worried his policies could echo Obama’s mealymouthed approach. During the 2020 campaign, Biden was the only major Democratic candidate who opposed legalization.
After emphasizing on the campaign trail that he would enact modest reforms such as decriminalizing the possession of cannabis and expunging prior convictions, Biden this month unveiled a racial justice plan that failed to mention marijuana reform. A spokesperson told Marijuana Moment the omission didn’t signal a deprioritization of the issue, however.
This past Friday, the drug reform group NORML launched an online petition urging Biden to select a cannabis-friendly attorney general who would let states determine their own marijuana laws, pardon low-level federal cannabis convictions and acknowledge the failed policies of the drug war.
“We have never been closer to ending the cruel policy of prohibition,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri, “but we cannot stop pushing now.”
Marijuana Equity Advocates Propose Changes To Federal Legalization Bill To Stop Big Business Takeover
Civil rights groups are pushing for a vote on a bill to federally legalize marijuana to take place in the U.S. House of Representatives this month—but some activists who have experience in the state-level regulatory space are now proposing changes to the legislation to ensure that the market is equitable and empowers communities that have been most impacted by prohibition to benefit from the new industry.
Without the modifications, they say, legal cannabis sales could end up in the hands of a few large corporations—”putting most small cultivators and retailers out of business.”
The equity advocates have submitted a pair of alternative amendments of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the House last year and was recently refiled by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). The proposals come from the Parabola Center, a newly established organization that is working to inform legalization legislation federally and at the state-level with the intent of promoting social justice-centered reforms.
The new suggested amendments were shared exclusively with Marijuana Moment and are being sent to cannabis reform champions in the House and Senate for consideration on Thursday.
In principle, there’s broad agreement on the legislation, Parabola Center’s Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis regulator, told Marijuana Moment. But in practice, there’s a sense among some advocates that federally descheduling cannabis without rigorous regulations will not have the intended impact for disproportionately impacted communities.
“We hope this project inspires the mass movement that legalized marijuana to become more proactive and intentional in deciding what the national marijuana marketplace will look like,” Title said.
In order to achieve equity, the advocates say there must also be a conversation around how to prevent large corporations—more specifically Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol—from dominating the market once the restraints of federal prohibition are lifted. There’s a sense of urgency to address that aspect of the reform, with companies like Amazon now lobbying in favor of the MORE Act, for example.
A summary of the proposed amendments from the Parabola Center says that the MORE Act’s sponsors “deserve full credit for their determination to address” equity-focused reforms, but expresses concern that the federal government is not yet ready to effectively oversee a national marijuana market, noting that its “experience with cannabis until now has been exclusively limited to interdiction and prosecution predominantly targeting Black and Latino communities.”
The advocates say the government “needs time to develop the tools and skills to regulate marijuana in a way that repairs the harms of the war on drugs” and points out that states are also struggling to oversee the industry “in an equitable way.”
Regulating marijuana isn’t just a matter of applying existing rules for alcohol and tobacco, Parabola says.
“While superficial similarities exist, to equate the prohibition and regulation of alcohol to that of cannabis is legally and historically inaccurate. It is not a sound basis for detailed cannabis policy,” their summary states. “Neither alcohol nor tobacco regulations have been developed to repair damage on the scale of that caused by the war on drugs. Further, neither of those regulatory models are ideal. As a country, we are still trying to undo the public health damage of letting Big Tobacco run wild.”
“Ultimately, if we are serious about creating a fair and equitable national industry, we must allow the federal government to develop its own core competency in cannabis regulation and prevent the domination of the market by a small number of corporations in the meantime.”
As introduced in Congress, the MORE Act would deschedule cannabis and take steps to promote equity in the industry. That includes by providing for expungements of prior marijuana convictions and reinvesting cannabis tax dollars into disproportionately impacted communities.
However, the descheduling component could inadvertently undermine the the social justice goals of the bill if steps aren’t taken to prevent the corporate consolidation of the industry, Parabola says. There’s a “high likelihood that such removal will result in a handful of national cannabis firms rapidly dominating the market and putting most small cultivators and retailers out of business,” according to the summary.
In other words, advocates see room for improvement, and they’re pushing for the incorporation of one of two proposed regulatory approaches to federal reform.
The first would give additional power to the Office of Cannabis Justice (OCJ) established under the MORE Act, letting the autonomous Justice Department body that would be created by the legislation dictate marijuana permitting. As drafted, that authority would be given to the Treasury Department.
The office would “regulate interstate commerce and enforce anti-cartel restrictions, preventing the creation of a national oligopoly similar to the state-level oligopolies that currently exist,” the summary states.
Federal funding could also be withheld from states that fail to meet certain racial justice benchmark standards under the revised plan.
The second, separate Parabola proposal is being described as a “cooperative federalism approach” that would end the federal criminalization of personal possession, cultivation and social sharing under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)—but it would not formally deschedule marijuana and would allow states to continue operating under the broader status quo of prohibition.
States that have legal markets could fully opt out of CSA enforcement if they meet certain criteria, specifically tied to racial justice objectives.
The purpose of that approach is to “protect individual cannabis consumers from federal arrest and prosecution while allowing states to continue to experiment with different types of equitable commercial markets.”
Asked why the group proposed two options for lawmakers, Title said they “thought it would be valuable to illustrate that there’s a whole spectrum of regulatory approaches between prohibition and descheduling that doesn’t protect state programs.”
“Those are the approaches we see discussed most often, but they essentially represent a police free-for-all versus a corporate free-for-all, both bad choices in our view,” she said.
Here’s a closer look at the details of each proposal:
-Under this plan, OCJ would regulate marijuana permitting, and no person or corporation would be able to own more than five cannabis licenses in order to support small business participation in the industry.
-While the MORE Act was amended this Congress to exclude a section barring market participation by people with former felony convictions, advocates recommend replacing that language. The proposal says that except for offenses based on marijuana sales, there should be “mandatory disqualification of applicants who have violated the RICO Act or engaged in substantial fraud, abusive labor practices, human trafficking, slavery, intentional failure to pay wages, substantial harm to public health, the environment or an endangered species, terroristic actions, money laundering, misappropriation of public funds, and/or public corruption.”
-OCJ would have authority over regulating interstate commerce and would be required to study state markets to develop the best approach. The proposal says that could take the form of regional compacts allowing for limited interstate commerce between certain states or allowing only equity businesses to sell cannabis across state lines.
-Federal funds could be withheld from states that fail to meet “racial justice benchmarks,” and portions of federal tax revenue could go to states that are meeting those standards.
-As with the original MORE Act, this approach would not preempt state law. Personal possession, cultivation and social sharing would be federally legalized while marijuana remains a controlled substance.
-For states that follow certain federal guidelines for cannabis regulation, the plant would only be legal within their borders. Interstate commerce would not be permitted under this approach.
-The proposers say this will “allow state governments to continue their experimentation while giving the federal government time to understand those models and develop its own evidence-based cannabis policies.”
“The key is that both approaches eliminate federal penalties for consumers and patients using cannabis, but they don’t open the doors to corporate consolidation we wouldn’t be able to take back,” Title said. “It’s important not to conflate consumer/patient rights with corporate profits. One is an immediate need and one isn’t.”
Separately, a federal prisoner who received clemency for his cannabis conviction from President Donald Trump recently wrote to members of Congress about how the MORE Act’s resentencing and expungement provisions could leave some impacted people without the relief that lawmakers intend.
These proposals also come as Senate leadership continues to work on their own version of legalization legislation, which Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has repeatedly said will be introduced “soon.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is also working the bill alongside Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), also said to expect a filing “very soon.”
Schumer has said that the proposal they’re working on will “ensure restorative justice, public health and implement responsible taxes and regulations.” He also made a point in March to say that it will specifically seek to restrict the ability of large alcohol and tobacco companies to overtake the industry.
Instead, it will prioritize small businesses, particularly those owned by people from communities most impacted by prohibition, and focus on “justice, justice, justice—as well as freedom,” he said.
Read the summary of the advocates’ MORE Act proposals and the text of the amendments below:
Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.
Connecticut Marijuana Legalization Bill Heads To Governor’s Desk
Connecticut is on the verge of legalizing marijuana after lawmakers sent a cannabis reform bill to the desk of the state’s supportive governor on Thursday.
The latest action, a Senate vote of 16-11, caps a drama-filled week that at one point saw Gov. Ned Lamont (D) issue a threat to veto the legislation he largely supports over a specific provision on equity licensing eligibility.
On Wednesday the bill passed the House of Representatives, which had amended the version adopted by the Senate a day earlier to remove the controversial language, necessitating Thursday’s final vote on concurrence.
If Lamont signs the bill into law as expected, possession of marijuana by adults 21 and older will become legal on July 1. Commercial cannabis sales could begin as soon as next May, but the bill does not specify an exact start date.
Sen. Gary Winfield (D), who shepherded the measure through the body, noted before the final vote that it came on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs, which the senator said damaged communities that now stand to benefit from equity-focused legalization.
“We have operated for 50 years with unjust laws that target certain communities,” he said. “We have damaged the lives of human beings in the United States of America who are a certain hue, because of politics.”
In a statement after the vote, Lamont called it “fitting” for the move to come on the drug war anniversary.
“The war on cannabis, which was at its core a war on people in Black and Brown communities, not only caused injustices and increased disparities in our state, it did little to protect public health and safety,” he said. “I look forward to signing the bill and moving beyond this terrible period of incarceration and injustice.”
Here’s my statement on final approval by the Connecticut General Assembly of legislation legalizing adult-use cannabis.
I look forward to signing the bill and moving beyond this terrible period of incarceration and injustice. pic.twitter.com/H4DYBcbe0K
— Governor Ned Lamont (@GovNedLamont) June 17, 2021
On Tuesday, senators had adopted an amendment allowing people with past cannabis arrests and convictions, as well as their parents, children and spouses, to qualify for social equity status when applying for marijuana business licenses. Previously the bill limited eligibility only to people who reside in areas that have been disproportionately affected by drug war convictions and arrests.
Half of all business licenses under the new system would need to be issued to social equity applicants.
While the provision expanding equity eligibility based on past arrests and convictions was intended to help redress harms caused by the war on drugs, Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds Jr., said in a statement that it would “open the floodgates for tens of thousands of previously ineligible applicants to enter the adult-use cannabis industry.”
The rule “allows just about anyone with a history of cannabis crimes or a member of their family, regardless of financial means, who was once arrested on simple possession to be considered with the same weight as someone from a neighborhood who has seen many of their friends and loved ones face significant penalties and discrimination due to their past cannabis crimes,” the statement said.
A second Senate amendment, which reportedly was introduced to address the governor’s stated concerns, clarified that anyone whose income is more than three times the state’s median income—regardless of criminal record or place of residence—could not qualify for social equity status. But on Wednesday morning, Lamont again told reporters that he wouldn’t sign the bill in the form passed by the Senate.
In response, House lawmakers rejected both Senate-approved amendments, essentially returning the bill to the form in which it was originally introduced on Monday—then made one additional change.
I just presided over the Senate’s historic vote legalizing adult-use cannabis.
This is a good bill, grounded in equity and bringing justice to communities disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs. I look forward to seeing @GovNedLamont sign it into law! https://t.co/gloLnlnyUn
— Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz (@LGSusanB) June 17, 2021
After stripping the Senate changes, House lawmakers added back in a Senate-passed provision that bars legislators, statewide elected officials, cannabis regulators and members of the social equity board from participating in the cannabis industry for two years after leaving government. That restriction was introduced in response to Republican concerns that legalization would otherwise create opportunities for officials to benefit themselves by entering an industry they previously influenced.
Despite the flurry of activity on the latest proposal, much of the nearly 300-page bill resembles a legalization measure that passed the Senate last week, which went on to stall on the House floor during the final hours of the regular session. That measure was pitched by Democratic legislative leaders as a compromise incorporating elements of both Lamont’s own legalization proposal, which advanced through two legislative committees this year, as well as an equity-focused legalization bill by Rep. Robyn Porter (D).
The current bill, SB 1201, was originally introduced Monday by House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) and Senate President Martin Looney (D).
Here are some key details of the current legalization proposal:
- It would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis starting on July 1 and establish a retail market. Legislative leaders anticipate sales would launch in May 2022.
- Regulators with the Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) would be responsible for issuing licenses for growers, retailers, manufacturers and delivery services. Social equity applicants would be entitled to half of those licenses.
- Equity applicants could also qualify for technical assistance, workforce training and funding to cover startup costs.
- A significant amount of tax revenue from cannabis sales would go toward broader community reinvestment targeting areas most affected by the criminal drug war.
- Home cultivation would be permitted—first for medical marijuana patients and later for adult-use consumers.
- Most criminal convictions for possession of less than four ounces of cannabis would be automatically expunged beginning in 2023.
- Beginning July 1, 2022, individuals could petition to have other cannabis convictions erased, such as for possession of marijuana paraphernalia or the sale of small amounts of cannabis.
- The smell of cannabis alone would no longer be a legal basis for law enforcement to stop and search individuals, nor would suspected possession of up to five ounces of marijuana.
- Absent federal restrictions, employers would not be able to take adverse actions against workers merely for testing positive for cannabis metabolites.
- Rental tenants, students at institutions of higher learning, and professionals in licensed occupations would be protected from certain types of discrimination around legal cannabis use. People who test positive for cannabis metabolites, which suggest past use, could not be denied organ transplants or other medical care, educational opportunities or have action taken against them by the Department of Children and Families without another evidence-based reason for the action.
- Cannabis-related advertising could not target people under 21, and businesses that allow minors on their premises would be penalized. Products designed to appeal to children would be forbidden.
- Licensees who sell to minors would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine. People in charge of households or private properties who allow minors to possess cannabis there could also face a Class A misdemeanor.
- Adults 18 to 20 years old who are caught with small amounts cannabis would be subject to a $50 civil fine, although subsequent violations could carry a $150 fine and/or mandatory community service. All possession offenses would require individuals to sign a statement acknowledging the health risks of cannabis to young people.
- Minors under 18 could not be arrested for simple cannabis possession. A first offense would carry a written warning and possible referral to youth services, while a third or subsequent offense, or possession of more than five ounces of marijuana, would send the individual to juvenile court.
- Local governments could prohibit cannabis businesses or ban cannabis delivery within their jurisdictions. Municipalities could also set reasonable limits on the number of licensed businesses, their locations, operating hours and signage.
- Municipalities with more than 50,000 residents would need to provide a designated area for public cannabis consumption.
- Until June 30, 2024, the number of licensed cannabis retailers could not exceed one per 25,000 residents. After that, state regulators will set a new maximum.
- Cannabis products would be capped at 30 percent THC by weight for cannabis flower and all other products except pre-filled vape cartridges at 60 percent THC, though those limits could be further adjusted by regulators. Medical marijuana products would be exempt from the potency caps. Retailers would also need to provide access to low-THC and high-CBD products.
- The state’s general sales tax of 6.35 percent would apply to cannabis, and an additional excise tax based on THC content would be imposed. The bill also authorizes a 3 percent municipal tax, which must be used for community reinvestment.
- Existing medical marijuana dispensaries could become “hybrid retailers” to also serve adult-use consumers. Regulators would begin accepting applications for hybrid permits in September 2021, and applicants would need to submit a conversion plan and pay a $1 million fee. That fee could be cut in half if they create a so-called equity joint venture, which would need to be majority owned by a social equity applicant. Medical marijuana growers could also begin cultivating adult-use cannabis in the second half this year, though they would need to pay a fee of up to $3 million.
- Licensing fees for social equity applicants would be 50 percent of open licensing fees. Applicants would need to pay a small fee to enter a lottery, then a larger fee if they’re granted a license. Social equity licensees would also receive a 50 percent discount on license fees for the first three years of renewals.
- The state would be allowed to enter into cannabis-related agreements with tribal governments, such as the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the Mohegan Tribe of Indians.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
Despite his veto threat, Lamont has been broadly supportive of legalization. Last week he told reporters that he has “a strong point of view to do whatever it takes to get this over the finish line.”
“Around the country, we have red states and blue states that are passing this and doing it on a very careful, regulated way—and I think we’re ready to do the same.”
The governor also said that if a legalization measure isn’t enacted this year, the issue could ultimately go before voters.
“Marijuana is sort of interesting to me. When it goes to a vote of the people through some sort of a referendum, it passes overwhelmingly. When it goes through a legislature and a lot of telephone calls are made, it’s slim or doesn’t pass,” the governor said. “We’re trying to do it through the legislature. Folks are elected to make a decision, and we’ll see where it goes. If it doesn’t, we’ll probably end up in a referendum.”
He last year that if the legislature wasn’t able to pass a legalization bill, he would move to put a question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters.
According to recent polling, if legalization did go before voters, it would pass. Sixty-four percent of residents in the state favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, according to a survey from Sacred Heart University released last month.
The legislature has considered legalization proposals on several occasions in recent years, including a bill that Democrats introduced last year on the governor’s behalf. Those bills stalled, however.
Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address in January, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.
The governor has compared the need for regional coordination on marijuana policy to the coronavirus response, stating that officials have “got to think regionally when it comes to how we deal with the pandemic—and I think we have to think regionally when it comes to marijuana, as well.”
Meanwhile in neighboring Rhode Island, a legislative committee on Monday approved a marijuana legalization bill backed by Senate leadership in that state.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
Most American Voters Support Decriminalizing All Drugs, Another New Poll Finds
The survey’s release coincides with the introduction of a first-ever congressional bill to decriminalize drugs.
By Molly Bernstein & Sean McElwee, The Appeal
For 50 years, the so-called “war on drugs,” which President Richard Nixon declared on June 17, 1971, has ravaged entire communities, exacerbated racial inequality and helped propel the United States to the highest incarceration rate in the world. It is a war that, by any measure, has been lost. Abusive and discriminatory policing tactics, long prison terms, and the myriad collateral consequences of criminal convictions have destroyed lives, while doing nothing to curb addiction or the epidemic of overdose fatalities.
These destructive policies of criminalization are also unpopular.
A new national poll from Data for Progress and The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, found that more than seven in ten voters (71 percent) believe that federal drug policies are not working and that there is a need for reform. Voters no longer want to treat public health issues like drug use and addiction as matters of crime and law enforcement—they support decriminalizing both drug possession (59 percent support) and the distribution of drugs in small quantities (55 percent support), while also shifting regulatory power over drugs from the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Department of Health & Human Services (60 percent support).
Many of these reforms are part of the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), announced this week by Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO). The DPRA would eliminate incarceration as a penalty for possession of any drug, expunge possession convictions retroactively, invest in alternative harm reduction programming and place drug classification power within DHS.
The DPRA also creates incentives for state and local jurisdictions to decriminalize drug possession and invest in alternatives to incarceration, reflecting momentum toward decriminalization already in full swing at the state and local level. In November 2020, Oregon passed a measure decriminalizing low-level drug possession across the board and four other states—Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota—voted to legalize marijuana, joining 11 other states and Washington, D.C. At the local level, prosecutors in counties like Philadelphia and Austin have policies to dismiss a significant number of possession-related charges.
The DPRA builds upon the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that would decriminalize marijuana and that the House passed in December 2020, though the Senate has yet to vote on it.
Full Polling Results
We also found that a variety of arguments in support of reforming federal drug policy resonate with voters, including that the war on drugs has led to ineffective, discriminatory policies and counterproductive outcomes:
- 60 percent of likely voters find it convincing that current federal drug policies are unfair and too harsh, exacerbating racial inequality rather than healing communities;
- 70 percent of likely voters find it convincing that “war on drugs” policies fail to improve community safety by failing to address drug addiction or crime;
- 68 percent of likely voters find it convincing that outdated “war on drugs” policies focus too much on politics and punishment;
- 67 percent of likely voters find it convincing that punishing people for drug use is ineffective at helping individuals and communities.
The new survey is the second this month to find broad support for decriminalizing drugs. A separate poll from the ACLU and Drug Policy Alliance found similar results, with 83 percent saying the drug war is a failure and 66 percent backing the removal of criminal penalties for drug possession.
From May 21 to 23, 2021, Data for Progress conducted a survey of 1,250 likely voters nationally using web panel respondents. The sample was weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race and voting history. The survey was conducted in English. The margin of error is ±3 percentage points.
The story was first published by The Appeal. The Appeal is a non-profit media organization that produces news and commentary on how policy, politics, and the legal system affect America’s most vulnerable people.
Additional reporting by Marijuana Moment.