WASHINGTON – Marijuana’s no longer even controversial. When New Mexico legalized last week, it became the 17th state — along with D.C., a few US territories and tribes — to make buying cannabis as easy as buying booze. And now, according to PEW, a staggering 91% of Americans support legalizing marijuana for either recreational or medicinal use. Even Canada and Mexico have moved past prohibition. Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are promising action. But there’s a hurdle they have to clear first: President Joe Biden. Awkward.
While Biden touted the progressive line on marijuana as he was wrapping up the Democratic primary, since moving into the White House he’s seemed to backpedal on the issue. The administration purged its rolls of staffers who consumed marijuana in the past. And a slew of new cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, have reversed their previous, more progressive positions on ending the ‘war on drugs.’
“I think they have a lot to prove,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station while walking across the Capitol grounds. “I don’t think that they’ve done anything.”
The New York Democrat is losing patience with Biden on marijuana.
“I think that the president needs to show up on decriminalization, legalization and this effort overall,” Ocasio-Cortez continued, “It’s like, come on.”
Democrats control both chambers on Capitol Hill, and they’re barreling forward without the president. House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler of New York is promising he’ll soon reintroduce the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. Last year the measure made history when it became the first bill unwinding the drug war to pass either chamber of Congress in some 50 years.
The measure was never taken up in Mitch McConnell’s Senate. But voters nationwide flipped the Senate and relegated the Kentucky Republican to minority leader. And the new sheriff – Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York – is promising to unveil a new proposal in their chamber soon.
While not as bullish as they once were, marijuana proponents feel the wind at their backs in spite of the mixed messages from Biden.
“Coming on the heels of the most successful session in Congress for cannabis in history, the table is set for full legalization,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, told The News Station. “We have a strong base of support in the House, and in the Senate we no longer have the Mitch McConnell road block.”
The Oregon Democrat has been a leading voice on these issues for years, and he knows roadblocks remain. Even so, he’s more optimistic than he’s been in the past – in part because his side keeps racking up wins at the local level.
“It’s not a forgone conclusion, but it’s the strongest position we’ve ever been in,” Blumenauer continued, “and we are doing it with the momentum of broad national support at the ballot box and the public opinion polls.”
Still, the resistance is real, and opponents seem to be better represented in Washington than they are at the state level.
Take New Jersey as an example. The state just legalized marijuana, yet one of its most senior lawmakers at the Capitol remains opposed.
“It’s fine, but if I was in the state legislature, like, I would have had a different perspective,” Rep. Bill Pascrell told The News Station of how he would have voted against it. “I’m zero tolerance.”
He was a high school teacher before getting into local politics in the 1980s and then coming to Congress in 1997.
“My record shows I’m very progressive. I think you make your own judgment, and I just, I’m skeptical about recreational marijuana,” Pascrell said. “That’s a whole different story.”
When asked if that puts him more in line with President Biden and other older lawmakers in both parties who remain resistant to marijuana legalization, Pascrell concurred.
“Yes, yes,” Pascrell agreed.
Knowing those powerful blocks of resistance remain within the Democratic Party doesn’t faze proponents. They say the system – the one wrought by the ‘war on drugs’ — has been geared towards churning out policymakers with those beliefs for decades now.
“I know we have a president that has, you know, certain predispositions, but I have to say that it’s not only the president, it’s the whole society that for the last 70 years, has been, you know, creating policy based on our politics and not on the science,” Rep. Lou Correa of California told The News Station outside the House chamber.
Correa says he’s seen that thinking in his constituents. One lady in particular stands out. Her California doctor was recommending medical marijuana as a way of getting her appetite up while she was on chemotherapy, but she was adamant she would never ingest cannabis. Ever.
“And this is a woman that is essentially the product of 70 years of brainwashing. Time to change the chapter, man,” Correa said.
That’s why the Democrat is taking the long, more patient view. And that starts with Biden.
“I think the Oval Office, in many ways, is reflective of middle America,” Correa said of Biden and the antiquated views he seems to hold. “That’s why I supported Joe Biden because I thought he was reflective of America, and he could unite America. Now we got to continue to educate the White House and middle America to make sure we get there.”