Why Won’t Democrats Just Come Out for Legalizing Marijuana?

Why Won’t Democrats Just Come Out for Legalizing Marijuana?

Why Won’t Democrats Just Come Out for Legalizing Marijuana?

It’s popular. It’s the right thing to do. But as with so many key issues, Biden keeps pressuring the party to pull its punches.


Some political issues are hard to wrestle with. Some are easy. Legalizing marijuana is easy.

A Pew Research Center survey found last fall that Americans back legalization by a 67-32 margin. The numbers spike among Democrats, 78 percent of whom favor ending this form of prohibition. But there’s also majority support—55 percent—among Republicans. Among voters under age 30, support for legalization is sky-high.

Enthusiasm for legalization extends far beyond the large number of Americans who are recreational users of marijuana to include millions of people who recognize, as does the American Civil Liberties Union, that “Marijuana Legalization Is a Racial Justice Issue.”

“Marijuana has been a key driver of mass criminalization in this country and hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of whom are Black or Latinx, have their lives impacted by a marijuana arrest each year,” ACLU policy analyst Charlotte Resing explained last year, while Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign argued, “Legalizing marijuana is about more than just allowing recreational use, or the potential medicinal benefit, or the money that can be made from this new market. It’s about undoing a century of racist policy that disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities. It’s about rebuilding the communities that have suffered the most harm.”

See, easy.

Except for the Democratic Party. When the party’s task force on criminal justice reform released its policy recommendations this week, legalization was off the agenda. That was just one example of the caution that permeates the 110-page document submitted to the Democratic National Committee’s platform drafters by the six task forces that were set up in May by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his chief rival for the party’s nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The task force recommendations on issues ranging from health care and the environment to immigration and economics tend toward compromise at a point when the former vice president should be presenting a dynamic vision of what comes next.

The agendas outlined by the commissions were far more progressive than those of President Trump and the Republicans, of course. And there were a number of areas where the policies are more progressive than those adopted by Democrats in the past, leading Sanders to suggest that “the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country.” But as a Politico analysis points out, “The task force recommendations don’t include the kind of wide-scale systemic upheaval that won Sanders such a fervent following in his two presidential campaigns—while provoking an outcry from moderate Democrats and Republicans alike.”

Biden’s representatives on the task forces moved a bit to the left, mirroring their candidate’s progression. But on issue after issue, they avoided the sort of big, bold structural change that Sanders and Warren championed in the primaries—and that now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, mass unemployment, and demands for racial justice, polling suggests voters recognize as necessary.

There’s the old talk of a “public option” to expand access to health care coverage. But no plan for the Medicare for All approach that is needed to create a single-payer system.

There’s some good language about eliminating power plant carbon pollution by 2035 and achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But there’s no comprehensive Green New Deal proposal to transform the economy in order to address the climate crisis while creating the jobs of the future.

There’s criticism of mass incarceration and a good proposal to restrict federal funding for states that maintain cash bail systems. But there’s no plan to abolish the scandal-plagued Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency or to defund the police with an eye toward establishing new law enforcement models that strive for public safety and justice. Even as demonstrations against police brutality have filled the streets of American cities, the criminal justice task force fails to eliminate the doctrine of qualified immunity, which, Representative Ayanna Pressley explains, “shields police from accountability, impedes true justice, and undermines the constitutional rights of every person in this country. It’s past time to end qualified immunity.” While the commission’s report called for steps to limit the worst abuses, it failed to embrace the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act—a measure that eliminates qualified immunity, which has passed the House—or Pressley’s Ending Qualified Immunity Act, legislation that has attracted the support not just of progressives but of former Republican, now Libertarian, Representative Justin Amash.

Color of Change senior director of criminal justice campaigns Scott Roberts told Politico that Biden “still seems to embrace kind of a law-and-order lite.” That was certainly the case when it came to upending marijuana laws.

The commission rejected legalization—the popular position backed by Sanders. Instead, it stuck to the more cautious approach that’s been maintained by Biden, a supporter of the drug war during his own Senate years who has softened some but not all of his old positions. Instead of legalization, the commission proposed to “decriminalize marijuana use,” reschedule cannabis on the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and leave it to the states to decide about legalization.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws concluded that the proposal “is out of step with public opinion [and] would do little to mitigate the failed policy of federal prohibition.”

“It is impractical at best and disingenuous at worst for the Biden campaign to move ahead with these policy proposals. Rescheduling of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act would continue to make the federal government the primary dictators of cannabis policy, and would do little if anything to address its criminal status under federal law,” explained Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law. “Rescheduling marijuana is intellectually dishonest. Just as cannabis does not meet the strict criteria of a Schedule I controlled substance, it similarly does not meet the specific criteria that define substances categorized in schedules II through V.”

Why didn’t the commission simply endorse the Marijuana Justice Act, which has been introduced by New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker in the Senate and House Democrats Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna? Sanders supports the measure, as do two of Biden’s vice presidential prospects, Warren and Senator Kamala Harris. The answer is that Biden has a long history of opposing legalization—going so far in his resistance to the idea that, last year, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested that the former vice president was employing “Reagan-era talking points.”


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