• November 27, 2020

House Democrats say Pelosi Dropped the Ball on Marijuana

 House Democrats say Pelosi Dropped the Ball on Marijuana

Original TNS art by Lizzy Oakley Photography

Democrats have unified around Joe Biden, but an increasing number are also demanding party leaders – from top to the bottom of their party’s leadership ranks – finally take drug reform seriously. The growing rift has been slowly coming to a head for years, but it boiled over in the House recently when vulnerable, more moderate House Democrats twisted party leaders’ arms until they pulled a scheduled marijuana decriminalization bill from the floor.

That move angered progressives, was seen as foolish by liberals, and was a non-issue to many more moderate Democrats. The frustration from many rank-and-file Democrats stems from party leaders’ decision to delay a vote to federally decriminalize marijuana until after the election, even as polls steadily show some two-thirds support for ending the prohibition on weed.

“‘Kicking back on the front porch and blowing a cloud’”

Rep. Scanlon’s father

For Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) – who was first elected in 2018 to represent a wide swath of the suburbs just outside of Philadelphia – weed normalization is basically a non-issue. Her father made sure of that. 

“Probably 40 years ago, my dad told me about going out to talk with some clients who were, you know, retired railroad workers and looking forward to, you know, ‘kicking back on the front porch and blowing a cloud,’” Scanlon told The News Station.

Scanlon says an obvious priority is making sure weed doesn’t get into the hands of kids, just as alcohol regulations set up hurdles for youths. But she says, as a representative of a state where medicinal marijuana is legal (and that’s trying to legalize it recreationally), it’s a no-brainer. That’s why she was fully prepared to vote to decriminalize nationally ahead of the election. 

“I have to be in favor of it, because Pennsylvania has decriminalized marijuana, so the fact that it’s still a Schedule I federal offense is bad for my state,” Scanlon says. “If the state’s going to decriminalize it, people need to be able to use banks to engage in that industry. I mean, it’s a real problem for the financial sector, and it’s a problem for business in our state. So, yes, absolutely. I was in favor of the bill.”

More progressive lawmakers are now demanding more than just marijuana decriminalization. They say it now has to include racial justice components, because they know the party’s true, progressive base. That’s why many argue the MORE Act’s inclusion of social and racial justice elements would have excited the portions of the party that have felt neglected this cycle.

“It would get young people energized, it would get people energized on issues of racial justice,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told The News Station. “I don’t think there’s any swing voter, suburban voter who’s going to not vote for a candidate based on that issue, but I do think that a lot of people would come out to the polls [for it].”

“We don’t lose one vote, but we’d bring a whole lot of new voters in’”

Kentucky Rep. Yarmuth

It’s not just California progressives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s state has seen polls showing wide support, including one that has 9 in 10 Republican voters there supporting medicinal marijuana. That’s why the Kentucky legislature was moving to legalize – the state House had just passed it – before the coronavirus shutdowns took root this spring.

The last federally elected Democrat representing Kentucky in Congress thinks his party’s leaders in the US House miscalculated just weeks away from the election.

“I’m all for it. I understand why they did it, but I think that was a mistake,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told The News Station of Democratic leader’s decision to pull the MORE Act vote.

Sure, Yarmuth represents the blue bastion of Louisville and is a proud progressive. But even libertarian Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) polled his more rural district – which nips at Louisville’s burbs, stretches north almost to Cincinnati, Ohio, and east into rural country – back in 2014 and did a double take. Massie told The News Station he found two-thirds’ support from Republicans in his district. That’s why Yarmuth is perplexed.  

“I think it’s a no-lose proposition for Democrats; I think it’s an all-win for Democrats,” Yarmuth said, before discussing moderate Democrats’ oversized fears of a popular issue. “I think they’re nervous about a lot of votes, but I’ve run on this in Kentucky. I’ve said: ‘Any Democrat should be for legalization; it’s a no-lose proposition. We don’t lose one vote, but we’d bring a whole lot of new voters in.’”

Part of the holdup in the House stems from the three octogenarian Democrats picked to lead their party in that chamber. This spring The News Station asked Majority Leader Steny Hoyer how much time he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi had devoted to discussing marijuana policy.

“How much do you talk to Pelosi on this?” The News Station asked Hoyer just before the first round of coronavirus lockdowns were enacted. “Is this a part of your guy’s agenda?” 

“No. No,” Hoyer replied. “I haven’t talked a lot about it.”

Shortly after that, Democratic leaders quickly reversed course and eventually scheduled a vote on decriminalization, only to then rapidly retreat and pull the bill until after the election.

Earlier this fall, Hoyer initially denied that party leaders like him miscalculated after being pressed on the issue by The News Station. While he relented a tad, he tried to pass the buck onto Republicans’ laps for dragging their feet on the bill to keep the government funded (known as a Continuing Resolution, or CR) along with the still-stalled coronavirus stimulus package.

“There wasn’t a miscalculation,” Hoyer said while flanked by his security detail in the Capitol. “If there was a miscalculation it was…the CR, we thought we were going to do it sooner. Focus on the CR, focus on COVID-19. That’s what we’re focused on. So we are going to do the MORE Act when we get back. It’ll pass.”

“We saw just millions of dollars in the first week”

Schakowsky on revenue from Illinois legalization

To other Democrats, their party leaders are out of touch with the expanding needs of one of their home state’s newest and burgeoning industries. And with the coronavirus recession hitting state budgets hard, officials are looking for revenue anywhere they can find it to avoid draconian cuts to things like social programs and schools.  

“We saw just millions of dollars in the first week,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), whose state recently became the 11th state to legalize recreational cannabis, told The News Station. “I think [the MORE Act] would have really helped the industry in Illinois. I’m certainly prepared to vote for it now. I hate to see it go till after the election.”

Even so, Schakowsky, a veteran of Washington politics, says she isn’t angry with Pelosi and Hoyer.

“Look, I understand caution. We have a lot of first-termers who are in Trump districts – I say, ex-Trump districts – who are in Trump districts,” Schakowsky said. “So you know, I certainly do understand a bit of caution.”

Schakowsky’s a progressive who has been in Washington for 22 years now, and that makes her and others in the old guard outliers when it comes to today’s new and growing class of younger progressives.

The young guard wishes party’s leaders got hip already and moved on these popular issues, because they know GOP leaders like McConnell remain out of touch with even their own voters on it. They want to exploit that for their party’s advantage.

“Coming out just blanket with a prohibitionist type of stance is a losing game for them, and I think they know that it’s unpopular and they know that it’s unpopular in their party,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told The News Station of the GOP, before questioning her party leader’s decision to pull the MORE Act ahead of the election. “I personally think it was a mistake.”

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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