• November 27, 2020

Dem Leaders Kept Pot Out of Policing Reform, In Spite of Prison Injustices

 Dem Leaders Kept Pot Out of Policing Reform, In Spite of Prison Injustices

Photo Courtesy of Matt Laslo

As Congress debated historic policing reform over the past few weeks, Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) says Democratic Party leaders “told” him to not offer a marijuana amendment, because it would be a distraction. That lecture from leaders of the Democratic Party came even as African Americans continue to be arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated at higher rates than their white counterparts.

Correa listened to Democratic leaders – who he refused to name – and he didn’t offer his cannabis amendment. Neither did a single House Democrat. Not one, including the two chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) who even penned a letter begging their colleagues to include cannabis as a part of policing reform.

While the heads of the Cannabis Caucus (who we’ll get to in a minute) were tight-lipped – as they declined to answer direct questions from The New Station – Rep. Correa was forthright.

“The reason I didn’t move forward with it was that I was told ‘Not at this time,’” Rep. Correa told The News Station. “They wanted to keep it as narrow as they could to focus on a victory, but I still believe if you really want to make major reform in this country, reform drug policy, especially cannabis.”

Correa says he was given no promises to take his legislation up in the future in exchange for pulling it now. The heads of the Cannabis Caucus, who recoiled after being pressed on why they wrote a letter they refused to back up by withholding their support from the final bill, aren’t as bullish when it comes to confronting their party leaders on the decision to keep marijuana policy out of policing reform.   

“Is that disappointing that party leaders are saying ‘No’ to including it?” I ask a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

“It’s timing,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) tells The News Station. “It’s timing.”

Politicians in Washington may feel like they have time, but for the millions of predominantly black and brown Americans currently incarcerated – or who’ve been dubbed “felons” for life – timing isn’t the issue; justice is. There seems to be a disconnect, though, between that message and some pro-cannabis politicians. 

“Are you worried that cannabis reform – that letter that you and [Blumenauer] wrote…” I ask the other co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). “…that it wasn’t included in policing reform?”

“We just have to work hard to get it included,” Lee told The News Station. “I don’t worry about much of anything.”   

She declined to answer in greater detail, repeating three times between chuckless: “We’re working hard to get it included.”

It’s not a laughing matter for other Democrats, though, like Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

“We need to deal with marijuana; we need to deal with that issue, so I’m all for it,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told The News Station.

McGovern chairs the Rules Committee, which means he controls how the House floor runs – from deciding which amendments are allowed to be debated to even how much time each side has to debate – and he says this first policing reform effort is just the first salvo.

“I mean, look, there’s 1,000 things that we need to do, right?” McGovern continued.  

“This is an important and significant step in, you know, in the right direction, but this is not the end of it,” McGovern said. “I mean, there’s going to have to be more things we have to do or we have to address the, you know, the criminal justice aspects of marijuana. I support that.”

Other Democrats who support – or who are just “sympathetic” to marijuana – argue this isn’t the time for a cannabis debate.

“I think cannabis is such its own issue all by itself. I think that we’ve got to stay focused on Black Lives Matter,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) told The News Station. “There’s certainly embedded in the way cannabis has been enforced – or marijuana laws have been enforced – that’s had disproportionate effects on black Americans.”

To Takano, in light of George Floyd being murdered at the knee of one Minneapolis police officer, with the alleged negligent complicity to immoral complacency of three other officers, House Democratic leaders made the right choice by focusing on “qualified immunity;” not cannabis.

“It’s an abstract term when most Americans actually look at what this judicial doctrine does,” Takano said. “I think they’ll conclude that it is insanely and unreasonably too high of a standard.”

Takano says forcing police officers – or even just their departments – to face potential liability for wrongdoing is essential and must be the focus of this moment.

“I would just say to the cannabis activists, in this case: We’ve got to give center attention to qualified immunity,” Takano said. “Chokeholds people get. No-knock [drug] warrants, prohibiting that, I think people get that. They get setting up a registry, so bad cops just can’t go get hired someplace else. What they don’t quite get yet – and this is the most important piece of the bill – is qualified immunity.”

It’s fundamentally different with marijuana, according to Takano.

“Cannabis is such a widely understood thing, and when it gets on the agenda, it sucks up all the air,” Takano said.

Whether marijuana is understood or not, Takano’s approach – to focus on one injustice at a time – is now en vogue in the Democratic Party. Hence party leaders kept policing reform free of all cannabis amendments.

Even as they lost this round, the Cannabis Caucus is vowing to attempt to fight another day.  

“We’re not done yet,” Blumenauer – one of the Caucus co-chairs – said. “I think there’s a good opportunity to take advantage of the concern that people have for criminal justice reform.”

Decriminalization may even be offered as an amendment to another policing bill this summer or early fall, according to Blumenauer.

“I think this can be part of the package before we’re done,” Blumenauer said. “If not this time, it’ll be the next one, but it’s ripe.”

But there’s no “package,” because Leader McConnell has already rebuffed Speaker Pelosi and her party’s bill. So now with policing reform in limbo, cannabis reform is as well. Especially because Democratic leaders tamped down any cannabis amendments before they could even be offered, according to Rep. Correa.

“They just didn’t think it was within the scope of this bill,” Correa said.“What we’ve got right now is, cannabis is being dealt with as a criminal issue. It’s not a criminal issue! It’s a social/medical issue,” Correa told The News Station. “The result is that you’re giving police an impossible task of implementing a failed drug policy.”

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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