• January 22, 2021

History: Marijuana Passes US House, but Progressives Say It’s Late

 History: Marijuana Passes US House, but Progressives Say It’s Late

Lawmakers head to the House floor to make history ahead of passing the MORE Act. Photo by Matt Laslo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. House of Representatives made history today when a bipartisan group of lawmakers passed the MORE Act, marking the first time either chamber of Congress has voted to decriminalize marijuana. It passed on a bipartisan vote of 228 to 164.

But the victory for progressives and others in the Democratic Party is bittersweet. Many say it shows party leaders are out of touch and should have taken the legislation up ahead of last month’s elections, which was the initial plan until party leaders pulled it.

“I think so. Yeah, I do,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The News Station just off the House floor. “There’s kind of this, like, reefer madness mindset, and it’s very outdated. But that’s not to say that every person in that generation here in this body is opposed to it, but it’s certainly an influence, I think.”

One thing observers of all stripes agree on when it comes to the 2020 election returns: Marijuana is more popular than politicians. Not surprisingly, in New Jersey 67.4% of voters supported recreational marijuana, but there were huge, lopsided victories for recreational marijuana in conservative country, too.

In Arizona 60% of voters endorsed recreational marijuana, 56.9% in Montana, 54.2% in South Dakota, while another medical marijuana ballot measure there netted 69.9% support. Even in deep red Mississippi, 68.3% of voters approved a medicinal marijuana measure. While moderate Democrats balked and got party leaders to pull the measure ahead of the election, more progressive lawmakers say they were coached poorly on the popular issue.

“The thing that’s so funny is, like, you can be a cool moderate. In my opinion, you can be a cool moderate. There are cool moderates,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I understand if you’re in a, you know, in a tough district not being able to embrace the full-throated messaging of ‘abolish ICE,’ but there were moderate districts and swing districts that supported Medicare for All. I think you can be a cool moderate by supporting marijuana decriminalization or legalization, because that’s where the whole country is at.”

Co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has pushed party leaders on the issue for decades now, and he even chalked up Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss by some 74,000 votes across Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to her not coming out forcefully in favor of cannabis reform. His thinking hasn’t changed.

“I have made the point that it would probably have been helpful to do so. In fact, in Arizona, the fact that it was on the ballot probably drew enough Democratic votes to the polls that gave Biden his margin, so he won,” Blumenauer told The News Station on the Capitol steps.

But Democratic leaders never listened. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this year, but after the party’s embarrassing down-ballot performance this cycle, she ingloriously announced she would let someone else take over that role in the next Congress. When presented with Blumenauer’s argument on cannabis, she was perplexed and deflected.

“Like that was going to move some votes?” Bustos — who was one of just six Democrats to oppose the MORE Act — told The News Station while walking up a back stairwell in the Capitol on her way to vote. “There were so many different things at play in this election…I don’t know.”

Some other party leaders who are a little lower in the pecking order see it differently. Chief Deputy Whip Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) helps party leaders get a sense of what rank and file Democrats are thinking, and he says the party missed the boat by listening to moderates over data. 

“I think this is one of those cases where the policy is behind public opinion. Public opinion moved on this a long time ago,” Kildee told The News Station at the Capitol. “So I think there’s some legitimacy to that, but, you know, they way it works around here is sometimes the squeaky wheels get the grease, and I think there were some members who were really nervous about it.”

But progressives were squeaky wheels ahead of the election, too. They say the 2020 returns on cannabis show they were right, and deserved a little grease from above, too. They say having cannabis on the ballot in certain states helped the party in spite of Democratic leaders punting the issue.

“I think we benefited from that. I think it shows that it’s not just substantively correct but a winning issue for us,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told The News Station after voting for the MORE Act.

The younger, Silicon Valley representative believes many older members of the Democratic Party are still living in a bygone era.

“I think it’s just institutional memory,” Khanna said. “In the nineties this used to, probably, be a third rail, and politics have changed, and sometimes it takes a little bit longer for institutional bodies to catch up. But the change on this issue has been faster than the change on Medicare for All or for public college. So it’s hopeful for other progressive policy.”

Still, Democratic leaders kept their promise and helped the progressive wing of the party make history today. While marijuana proponents now want party leaders to pressure the Senate into acting too, they’re also grateful.  

“Being able to put this on the floor with the support of leadership is amazingly consequential. There’s a lot going on, and for them to take a little time for this is a landmark,” Rep. Blumenauer of Oregon told The News Station. “This is the culmination of a long, hard slog, because there’s, as you know, so many disparate interests. I’m amazed that it’s on the floor. I’m pleased.”

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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