Democrats and their resistance to marijuana

The Democratic Resistance — to Marijuana

WASHINGTON – The bar is low for Democrats when it comes to marijuana. This summer Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was lavished with praise for merely holding a news conference announcing he’d soon be unveiling a marijuana decriminalization measure in his chamber – a place where enough Democrats oppose decriminalizing cannabis that the majority leader’s bill can’t even net 51 Democratic votes (let alone the 60 bipartisan ones needed to overcome a filibuster?).

Unlike last year, in this legislative go round Democratic leaders don’t have the luxury of a Mitch McConnell-shaped piñata to whack if the party fails to deliver on its promise to normalize marijuana. Since it became Joe Biden’s party, even the contract Democrats made with their voters on cannabis has been upended. During the 2020 election Biden, ever the seasoned Washington negotiator, quietly convinced his party’s power brokers to delete marijuana “legalization” – which the party got behind in 2016 — from the Democratic Party’s platform. Instead, they merely endorsed decriminalization — a step backwards which, at the time, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station was “embarrassing” for the party. 

AOC’s not talking Biden’s old wannabe-GOP, Democrat-in-name-only party; she’s in tune with her generation’s impatient, more progressive and anti-police-state party. To younger Dems, Biden and his era of politicians are the fad. And the fad is fading fast, as this new generation of pavement pounders demand change as if it’s their right. As if they’re fueled by making penance for the sins of their Democratic forefathers and mothers who sold their rights to the loudest conservative pundit, as they continuously caved, mimicking and then outdoing the GOP (1994 Crime Bill? Thank you, now-President Biden). On Capitol Hill and in the party’s base, today’s Democrats aren’t trying to out GOP their political counterparts; rather, they’ve proudly worn the mantle of The Resistance. But there’s another Resistance in town these days. 

“It’s hard for me to accept that social justice is important to somebody when they won’t provide any flexibility on the issue of cannabis reform.”

Matthew Schweich on Joe Biden

Just a few years back most Democrats joined Republicans, political consultants and congressional aids in laughing off marijuana completely. They’re not smirking these days. They’ve fallen in line. The vast majority of Democrats — from average voters to most party leaders — are now all in for legal weed. But don’t be fooled: “Democrat” does not mean pro-cannabis. There remains a firm wall of opposition to marijuana in the party. Meet the Democratic Resistance to Marijuana – a relatively small band of powerful Democrats who are keeping the party from carrying through on its promise to end the more than half century old war on marijuana.

In the last decade, progressives and disparate bands of like-minded, passionate organizers in local communities nationwide have led the astonishingly successful charge on legalizing cannabis. They, along with some more libertarian-leaning Republican politicians, basically won. Laws to legalize marijuana have now passed in 19 states, with more hoping to join them soon. All told, nearly half of Americans now live in states where recreational marijuana is legal, while more than 70% of us can legally access cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Most Democrats got that memo from voters themselves, but now many just pay cannabis lip-service on 4/20 or quietly vote in favor of normalizing the plant, even as they disregard – “that’s not my issue,” a Democrat from a recreationally legal state recently told me — or privately dismiss the popular substance. According to Washington logic, that’s progress on the left, because reading polls is one thing the GOP has yet to learn when it comes to this substance that’s more popular than either party.

Again, the bar is low. Simply perusing polls enabled Democrats in the House of Representatives to make history by voting to unwind a portion of the “war on drugs” when they passed the MORE Act to decriminalize marijuana last year and again this year. But making history with show votes isn’t delivering on the party’s promise. And there remain a sizable number of powerful Democrats who are proving The Resistance isn’t reserved for Trump alone. 

The Democratic Resistance to Marijuana is real. They’re not as loud as their progressive counterparts, because that’s not their end game. Marijuana is seemingly here to stay. But the losers aren’t giving up. Instead, they’re now focusing their energy and resources on working behind the scenes to change the rules of the game. That’s now on display as many Democrats scramble to leave their prohibitionist marks on local marijuana laws, or the lack thereof. In some parts of the nation, they’re doing a pretty damn good job.  

The Resistance is Small But Powerful in Washington

Speculation surrounding the U.S. Senate and marijuana reform has been ripe since Democrats took control of the chamber earlier this year. But the math doesn’t seem to add up, at least when just looking at Democrats, many of whom remain slippery on the issue. Three Democratic U.S. senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Mark Kelly of Arizona – say they’re still undecided on whether they could even support the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana federally.

Get Lit.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire firmly opposes legalization, though she’s left a door open to win her over. 

“We’re in the middle of an opioid epidemic, and the research that I’ve seen suggests that that is a way that more people get into drugs,” Shaheen told Natalie Fertig and Nicholas Wu of Politico this spring.    

While fiercely opposed, taken at her word Shaheen seems open to change – but only if she’s given irrefutable evidence marijuana is not a gateway drug. That will prove hard because the federal government has spent countless millions of dollars indoctrinating average Americans — and senators alike — with anti-cannabis propaganda, even as lawmakers in both parties have padded their reelection bids with tens of millions of dollars from the pharmaceutical executives who are perpetuating the opioid epidemic. 

Still, Shaheen claims she can be moved by new research. But no one’s moving the mountain that is Sen. Jon Tester. Consider him the messenger the Founding Fathers longed for in the Senate: The wise gentleman farmer.

Tester stands out to many for being a rancher first, as the three missing fingers on his left hand attest. He’s naturally folksy. As a senator, he gets intimidatingly serious sometimes, but he’s somewhat of an anomaly in Washington for not taking himself too seriously. 

The average-guy appeal of Tester is palpable. It’s on display when his shirts barely stay tucked in as he saunters to the Senate floor to cast votes. He’s surely a political animal, even chairing the campaign arm of Senate Democrats — the DSCC — from 2015-17, yet he’s jovial, smiling and cracking jokes with Democrats and Republicans alike in a Senate where many lawmakers spend more time on Twitter than talking to their peers. Tester is unique. He’s not acting, as he does in some awkward campaign ads, like one co-starring the steel meat grinder that claimed his three fingers when he was just 9-years-old.  

The Montana Democrat is a rare specimen in today’s Senate, and not just when his well-fueled beer belly is trying to casually slide into senatorially cramped elevators. He got sent to Washington a year after me, and since his arrival in 2007 on numerous occasions I’ve (literally) bumped into him at my usual Capitol Hill watering hole where the senator’s only offense has been drinking too few pints (guess that’s why the House is the more scandal-ridden chamber – senators know to drink to their heart’s content at home).

Unless you’re a political animal, you don’t for a second think Tester’s a United States senator. Sure, he doesn’t look the part, but it’s more than that. He has a genuine laugh. He smiles. He’s nice. It seems, except for the title of senator, he’s actually human. 

Those same real-world qualities – the man brings his own fresh meat from his farm to Washington — radiating from Tester have, arguably, made him the fiercest opponent of marijuana legalization currently in the Senate Democratic Caucus. 

“I don’t support legalization at all,” Tester told The News Station at the Capitol this summer.

Unlike Shaheen, Tester’s not moveable on this issue. That’s because in 2016, the senator’s nephew — who grew marijuana – was slaughtered in a brutal and deranged attack with a wood-splitting maul while his eight-year-old daughter hid in her bedroom.

While many in Tester’s orbit – from Senate colleagues to his family members — are supportive of cannabis, the senator remains unabashedly opposed. He says marijuana is to blame for his nephew’s horrific death.

“I say it is,” Tester says without hesitation.

The loss of his nephew has now become Tester’s public policy. 

“No, I don’t support legalization at all,” Tester says. “I just don’t.”

“Is that on the record?” I ask. 

“Yeah,” Tester says. “I mean, if you’ve got an ailment. If you got, you know, something wrong with your eyes and you need to smoke pot and it makes you better. Fine. If you got pain issues, you got to smoke pot. Fine. But just to get up in the morning and do a joint because you can? No.”

The senator is fine normalizing some aspects of marijuana, like passing the SAFE Banking Act which would provide cannabis firms the same access to financial services other American businesses are afforded. Tester may be opposed to marijuana, but he doesn’t want truck loads of cash traversing his state or others.

“I think it’s important that we move forward so this can be banked. I think it’s a safety issue. Look, in many states, including Montana, pot’s legal now,” Tester says. “Whether I like that or not, this is a different issue.” 

Tester’s opposition to marijuana decriminalization means Schumer needs at least one Republican if he hopes to pass his proposal. But don’t forget about those other four Senate Democrats who are opposed to cannabis. The resistance is strong in the Senate, but Washington’s sat out most of the legalization craze sweeping the nation. And the state’s have surely proved their willingness to bypass Congress when it comes to drug policy. 

Washington isn’t the Power Broker on Weed

Just as marijuana legalization swept the nation in the past decade without much assistance from Washington, the movement continues to pick up steam locally. Though in some spots, momentum from voters has been crushed under the feet of powerful local Democrats.

That’s the case in Hawaii where Democratic Gov. David Ige killed a legalization measure winding through the state legislature earlier this year when he threatened to veto the proposal. He did reluctantly decriminalize marijuana, though he’s vetoed other cannabis measures and is no fan of Mary Jane. 

It’s the same in Democratic Delaware.

“Look, I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” Gov. John Carney told listeners of Delaware Public Radio in May.    

The Democrat came to the governor’s mansion by way of a six-year stint representing the state in the House of Representatives. Carney has signed measures to expunge marijuana convictions from people’s records along with decriminalizing the plant (now you just get a $100 fine if you’re caught with up to an ounce of weed), but the reason cannabis remains illegal in Delaware is largely because of the 65-year-old governor and his Democratic allies in the legislature, even as other Democrats continue trying to overcome the blockade from the left. 

Democratic infighting has also stymied efforts to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island, though pressure is now being put on lawmakers by the ACLU, Black Lives Matter RI PAC, Reclaim RI and a slew of other groups. 

In Wisconsin, Democratic state senators were lined up against legalizing cannabis earlier this year, if you were to believe the state Senate’s Democratic leader Janet Bewley who told The News Station, “Full legalization is a nonstarter. The Democratic caucus is not in favor of that.” Later that week she walked back the comment, because it seems it was a low enough priority for her that she never actually asked her fellow Democrats where they stand on the issue.

There are also many Democratic players who you’ve never heard of working tirelessly in their respective state legislatures to cap the legally allowed potency level of cannabis, including state Rep. Yadira Caraveo of Colorado, Sen. Jesse Salomon and Rep. Lauren Davis of Washington state, Jason Lewis of Massachusetts and Vermont Sens. Dick Sears and Tim Ashe, just to name a few.

In Illinois, the state’s NAACP teamed up with anti-marijuana group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (or SAM) to push decriminalization as opposed to legalization. That’s odd, because the national NAACP supports legalization. But SAM has been quietly working behind the scenes to shore up Democratic support in key state legislatures. The group was co-founded by former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and Kevin Sabet, a former White House Office of National Drug Control Policy advisor.

Don’t be fooled: “Democrat” does not mean pro-cannabis.

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Sabet brags there would be more Democrats vocally opposed to marijuana legalization if the party’s peer-pressure machine wasn’t as powerful as it is. As it stands, he says Dems are forced to talk to him privately.

“I think it’s been harder to get them to talk about this — and have the guts to talk about this — in public,” Sabet told The News Station earlier this year, “but I always joke that I have like a secret support group of state and local and national Democrats that call me up at, like, odd hours of the day to ask me some question about marijuana they don’t know about.”  

While most of the marijuana action has been at the local level over the past decade, advocates say it’s time to solidify those local victories with a big win in Washington. The stars don’t seem to be aligning though. 

The Public Face of Marijuana Opposition: Joe Biden

While the vast majority of elected Democrats have now fallen in line with the party’s base on marijuana, President Joe Biden remains out of step with Democratic voters and rank-and-file office holders alike. That’s in spite of what candidate-Biden promised voters. 

As then-candidate Biden worked to shore up the support of Democratic primary voters and voting delegates, he promised he was with them when it comes to normalizing marijuana policy. Advocates feel betrayed. 

“In return he’s done nothing. He hasn’t really even thrown a bone to cannabis-reform advocates,” Matthew Schweich, the deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told The News Station. ”So we’re not even seeing the smallest effort from President Biden to show that he’s listening to the American people, and I think that this is going to be a growing problem for him.”

Now, the Biden administration doesn’t even entertain questions on the popular plant.

The opposition from the party’s standard bearer is starting to rankle some of the party’s rank-and-file lawmakers.

The frustration from the party’s elected rank-and-file pales in comparison to the frustration now boiling over from the party’s progressive base of unelected advocates.

“So it’s just complete and total disrespect to Americans who want some reform. He can’t even articulate a middle ground, even offer some kind of compromise. It’s just ‘no’ to everything,” Schweich said of Biden. “And he talks about social justice as if it means something to him. It’s hard for me to accept that social justice is important to somebody when they won’t provide any flexibility on the issue of cannabis reform.”

The resistance to the Democratic Resistance to Marijauna seems to be growing by the day. And it may come to a head if Biden is primaried from the left, or it could boil over when Schumer brings his long-awaited marijuana decriminalization bill to the Senate floor. All eyes will be on the party that promised marijuana legalization, only to take it back and promise decriminalization, only to then elect a Democrat who is arguably the most anti-marijuana president in our lifetime. Biden has yet to be tested on cannabis, but many advocates are itching to see who the real Joe Biden is. Though they fear they know him and his strategy of resistance all too well.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

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