• February 27, 2021

Democrats Set Criminal Justice, Marijuana as Top Priorities

 Democrats Set Criminal Justice, Marijuana as Top Priorities

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) talks to a reporter underneath the Capitol. Photo by Matt Laslo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Democrats are still getting used to this new Washington — one where they control the White House, House and Senate (even if barely). While the new majority party in town has a long priority list, many Democrats are promising criminal justice is near the top of their list and something they’re hoping to address by summer, if not sooner. And marijuana is now seen as a criminal justice issue to many.

“It’s a justice issue, because it’s been used inequitably,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The News Station on the way to a vote at the Capitol.

While combating the coronavirus pandemic and the recession that’s followed in its deadly wake remain the Biden administration’s top priority, the restoration of voting rights to felons — more than five million of whom were forbidden from voting in 2020, according to the non-partisan Sentencing Project — was included in the first bill offered by newly minted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. Rank-and-file Democrats are taking that as a strong signal the party will move on these issues early on.

“Criminal justice reform, sort of [our] racial equity agenda, is a very big priority,” Kaine said. “In fact, you might see it early, because a lot of Senate 1, The For the People Act, is voting rights — enfranchising, not disenfranchising [voters].”  

House Democrats are itching for action on these issues, too. They were active over the past two years, though you wouldn’t know it because those bills largely sat untouched in the GOP controlled Senate. But with Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) now relegated to Senate minority leader, Democrats are eager to see marijuana reform — and its implications on the broader criminal justice system — come up early in this 117th Congress.

“Now with the Senate, I think we have a shot at that,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told The News Station outside the Capitol. “So I do think it’ll be in our first — I don’t want to say the first 100 days because we’ve got to deal with COVID, we’ve got to deal with infrastructure, but I do think it’ll be early in this year that we take on that issue.”   

While Jayapal is a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, she says marijuana reform is an issue the two parties should be able to tackle together, especially in light of voters in red states from South Dakota to Mississippi overwhelmingly legalizing either recreational or medicinal marijuana in November.

“Well, I think it’s actually a big bipartisan issue that we could pass,” Jayapal said. “I do think that, you know, you will see that coming up very quickly. And we saw it in the elections, obviously. And so that is something that I think could get a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. And there’s so many states already, including in this last election, that showed us exactly how they feel about cannabis reform.”

The bipartisan good tidings may be premature, though. When asked about coupling marijuana in with criminal justice issues, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) — the former Senate majority whip who remains one of McConnell’s top lieutenants — brushed aside the notion.  

“I thought you said they wanted a criminal justice agenda, but that involves marijuana legalization?” Cornyn replied to The News Station through a dismissive laugh.

In early December, as the last Congress wound down, House Democrats made history by passing the first bill in either chamber of Congress to undo even a part of the war on ‘drugs’ since it was launched decades ago. But that legislation, the MORE Act, includes a federal tax on marijuana that it would then use revenue from to pay for social equity and job-training programs in mostly minority communities.

If Democrats lead with that legislation again, many Republicans say it makes it harder for many in their party to vote with them.

“We can look at what they’ve got to offer, but I don’t think we’re going to be interested in going as far as they want to go,” Cornyn said as he walked through the basement of the Capitol. “I think before we do anything radical, we need to look at the public health consequences.”  

After years of being stonewalled by the GOP on issues like these, more senior Democrats are itching for lawmakers in the nation’s capital to catch up with the now 15 states, D.C. and three territories that have legalized recreational marijuana, and the 36 states and four territories with medicinal cannabis programs in place.

“I think it’s part of dealing with the so-called war on drugs,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) told The News Station in the basement of the Capitol. “I think we’re making real progress around the country, and I think we should do it here in Washington as well.”   

Still, Democratic Party leaders are trying to figure out how best to govern now that they control Washington. And many say it’s going well.

“It’s really weird,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) told The News Station. “Now it’s strange in that it’s starting to look like real government again.”

This is Ryan’s 10th term, or his 20th year, as a representative in Washington. He says a part of getting Capitol Hill working again is getting input on legislation from the party’s rank and file, who often speak loudest at the committee level because that’s where they get to leave their fingerprints on the nation’s laws.

While the chairs of committees are allies of Speaker Pelosi, she’s promised and tasked those chairs with listening to the party’s members so, at least in theory, the most democratic (small “d”) legislation eventually percolates to the top. 

And when it comes to issues like marijuana and criminal justice, Ryan says the party’s chairs are expected to have a lot of say on the final legislative products coming to the House and, eventually, the Senate floors.  

“I think a lot of people trust the chairs of our committees,” Ryan said.

Democrats are also blowing some dust off their work over the past two years from the 116th Congress, even as they try to hit the ground running in this 117th Congress.  

“I think there’s also, you know, an assessment of all the bills that we passed in 116th, which ones will we prioritize?” Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.) told The News Station while walking across the Capitol grounds. “Because we want to pass them and we want them to have a shot in the Senate, so I think there’s some of that reassessment going on.”  

With only a 10 vote majority in the House — 221 Democrats, 211 Republicans and three vacancies — and a 50-50 tie in the Senate — with Vice President Kamala Harris tilting control to Democrats — the nation’s new majority party on Capitol Hill isn’t spiking any football just yet. 

And many Democrats say they’re still looking forward to hearing what President Biden has to say on the criminal justice and marijuana reform proposals many in the party have been itching to enact for years now.

“You know, we’ve got a skinny margin,” Garcia said. “You know, it’d be good to know what the White House is thinking on these things as well.”

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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