• October 28, 2020

AOC and Pressley Say Dem Leaders Caved to McConnell on Marijuana Vote

 AOC and Pressley Say Dem Leaders Caved to McConnell on Marijuana Vote

AOC talks to a reporter outside the Capitol. Photo by Matt Laslo

Forget transportation week. This was supposed to be marijuana week. But House Democratic leaders – who obey Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s every marching, jogging, and, seemingly even her, crawling orders – pulled a historic cannabis legalization bill off the schedule. That move was meant to protect vulnerable moderate Democrats, but it’s angered progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who accuse Pelosi and her leadership team of merely playing into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hands – yet again.

“It’s incredibly disappointing,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The News Station while a tad out of breath after rushing to cast a vote on the House floor.

What Happened?

For the 30-year-old progressive phenom, the buck stops with her party’s leaders. And to her: the buck has surely been stopped, polished, gift wrapped, and then over-nighted to McConnell too many times already.

“I think it’s a persistent issue where McConnell will say something and Democrats just adopt the frame as true,” Ocasio-Cortez bemoaned. “He can be lying through his teeth – like he is in this instance – and they just accepted his framing. And it creates a lot of problems for people back where we come from, especially my district.”

And McConnell doesn’t seem to know anything about Queens, the Bronx or Rikers Island, even if he’s become well acquainted with Manhattan over his decades fundraising for the party he controls. Even as McConnell despises cannabis – he’s all about hemp. But McConnell may be slipping, because some 90 percent of his constituents are clamoring for legal medicinal marijuana.

Those dynamics aren’t good. McConnell and other GOP leaders keep balking at reforms the American people clearly want (hence more than half of the states – along with tribes, territories and the nation’s capital itself – have now legalized marijuana in one way or another). That’s why progressives accuse Democratic leaders of being out of touch, especially when it comes to minority communities.  

“I think it’s just indicative of how, you know, when it comes to issues of racial justice, delay is a big, persistent issue that we consistently have to deal with,” Ocasio-Cortez said through a sigh and pained laugh.

Accusations of a “Political Miscalculation”

Unlike Democratic leaders, Ocasio-Cortez seems to have actually read recent polling on cannabis.

“I also just think that it’s a political miscalculation, personally,” Ocasio-Cortez said.  

At some 67 percent approval, marijuana’s a lot more popular than President Trump, either major political party (or either party’s leaders in Congress), the nation’s media, etc. That’s from voters of all stripes; whether they live in red, blue or one of America’s few remaining purple regions. That’s why this fresh(Wo)man isn’t pulling punches with party leaders on an issue her generation arguably knows better than the three octogenarians controlling the reins of power in the US House of Representatives.

“The vast majority of the American public believe in, not just the decriminalization of marijuana, but the expungement of records from the unjust laws that were on the books during the war on ‘drugs,’” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Every day that goes by that we kick this can down the road is a day that a dad is still in jail with[out] his kids. It’s a day that, even if you’re not in jail, that you continue to be haunted, denied, you know, job opportunities, because of things on your record that shouldn’t be on record.”

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t alone. She’s got a Squad after all…

“Disappointed, outraged, but not surprised,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) told The News Station on the Capitol steps while wearing an “ARREST THE COPS WHO KILLED BREONNA TAYLOR” tee.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley talks to Rep. Ilhan Omar and Jamaal Bowman, who defeated 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel earlier this year. Photo by Matt Laslo

That’s because progressive women of color got rolled by party leaders, again. Democratic leaders serve many masters, and this time they had their arms twisted and turned by moderate, self-described Blue Dog, Democrats.

Is Marijuana a Key Element of Racial Justice?

That predominantly white and suburban or rural group complained and eventually convinced Democratic leaders to pull the most racially ‘woke’ cannabis bill ever slated to hit the House floor. That – coupled with all the unrest stemming from police officers continuing to harass, incarcerate and even kill unarmed Blacks – has left progressives bristling. Cause this isn’t your grandparent’s marijuana.

“Cannabis justice – that’s a racial justice issue,” an animated and physically pained Pressley said.

Marijuana isn’t the end game: Equality is. And for Pressley and other progressives that means housing, student loan, health care, prison reform (among the countless issue areas that America’s racist history has impacted over the decades).

“We have to view every issue through a racial justice lens, because it’s all intersectional and these harms have been legislated,” Pressley said, before bringing the conversation back to the war on ‘drugs.’ “The path forward is the federal government playing a role in being actively anti-racist, and the MORE Act is one of those.”

Fighting in the trenches against one’s own party – and the leaders of that party – isn’t fun. It’s exhausting.  

The Fight for Marijuana Legalization Continues

“You know, I’m fatigued. I’m fatigued,” Pressley said through a sigh, even as her eyes lit up. “I’m fatigued, but, you know, retreating into a corner into a fetal position is not an option. Like, you know, I’ve got to stand in the gap for all the other people that are just too defeated, too depleted, too traumatized to do anything else.”

The MORE Act isn’t new. Parts of it were birthed out of the Marijuana Justice Act, which was penned by former presidential contender and current Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) back in 2017.

“When I introduced Marijuana Justice, I was an outlier,” Booker told The News Station on his way to a Senate vote this week. “Now, it is really the mainstream of Democratic thought on this issue. So I’m excited about it going forward.”

Booker is always optimistic – almost too optimistic for this swampy swamp – but he’s also pragmatic. He thinks there’s a window to move the MORE Act after November’s elections (dubbed a “lame duck” session).  

“It’s not a matter of if something like this is going to pass; it’s a matter of when,” Booker told The News Station. “I’m still very confident we’ll get this done.”

Matt Laslo

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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