• January 22, 2021

Marijuana Myths Abound in Washington Ahead of Historic House Vote

 Marijuana Myths Abound in Washington Ahead of Historic House Vote

Photo by Manish Panghal

Myths, distortions, and lies have been flying across Washington this week. But unlike a typical week in Trump’s Washington, this time they’re emanating from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue: The U.S. Capitol. That’s because the House of Representatives has been debating whether to federally decriminalize marijuana — the first congressional floor debate ever over unwinding even a sliver of the war on ‘drugs’ — ahead of today’s vote on the measure.

The historic nature of the vote may be why historic myths surrounding cannabis have been dusted off by opponents of the substance that’s now legal in one form or another in 36 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and on some Native American reservations.  

“I think it’s a gateway drug,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told The News Station on his way to a vote. “To me it’s a bad signal to be sending.”

When pressed, King said he’d read and heard that trope from people he’s spoken with, but they don’t seem to be federal experts, like officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even though the agency is currently controlled by an anti-cannabis administration, the CDC website says “more research is needed to understand if marijuana is a ‘gateway drug.’

But even the CDC itself is an outlier. There’s still a dispute in some circles over whether cannabis is a ‘gateway drug’ due to the lack of studies addressing the subject (which is something the MORE Act attempts to address), many other health experts and researchers have attempted to debunk the myth for years now with their own research or by relying on studies from nations that haven’t stifled marijuana research for decades now.

Still, this week other opponents of decriminalizing marijuana have been raising red flags about children being able to access the plant if the federal prohibition is ended.

“When is the right time to decide that edible marijuana for our children should be banned at the federal level? Is it after 50 states have grappled with these decisions? Is it before?” Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said in Thursday’s floor debate on the measure. “We’ve made that decision in terms of alcohol; we’ve made that decision in terms of tobacco. Seems like the easy time to make that would be now, but we’ve not made that decision in the underlying bill.”

Not a single locality across the nation has even attempted to legalize marijuana for children. And in states where its been legalized for adult use, there’s been a decline in teen usage, which is likely because setting up a regulated system for cannabis makes it harder for children to access the substance.

“The current approach has failed our youth, failed to stem more harmful drug usage, and, most notably, has failed communities of color across the United States,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) said on the House floor. “The MORE Act will not fix all of the injustices caused by the obsolete and ineffective approach of the federal government towards cannabis, but it is a good and long overdue start.”

Other opponents have likened marijuana decriminalization to attempts to decriminalize harder substances.

“Sometimes I think that the world is turned upside down when you have a state, I think it’s Oregon, that bans plastic straws but legalizes cocaine and heroin. It just is insane to me,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said during the House floor debate on the MORE Act.

That was a step too far for Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who was dumbfounded that Lesko was lashing out against a cannabis measure, because just last month a whopping 60% of voters in her state legalized recreational marijuana.

“Listening to my colleague from Arizona sort of made my head hurt. This legislation does not legalize cannabis across the country. What it does is it stops the federal government from interfering with what states have decided to do. No small amount of irony, her state just approved legalizing cannabis,” Blumenauer said. “And this legislation would prevent the federal government from interfering with what her voters decided.”

Blumenauer pointed out that marijuana is now a $17 billion industry that employs about 250,000 people nationwide, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans — predominantly minorities — have been or remain incarcerated for cannabis possession.

“This is an opportunity to strike a blow against the failed war on drugs that has literally destroyed hundreds of thousands of young Black lives. Black people use cannabis no more frequently than whites, but they are arrested about four times more, and in some parts of the country it’s much, much greater,” Blumenauer said.   

Besides directing federal funds toward expunging the records of people convicted of marijuana crimes, the MORE Act also seeks to help restore economic vitality to the communities hit hardest by the war on ‘drugs’ over the decades, which doesn’t sit well with many GOP opponents.

“This bill is just too much, too fast and too big of a federal role than I would like to see,” Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) told The News Station outside the Capitol.

For many lawmakers, especially most members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a swift reversal is needed after some 70 years of criminalizing cannabis and using it as a bludgeon against minorities.

“I’ve had friends who got busted for marijuana who got crazy jail sentences, and I’ve had other friends who got busted for harder drugs who got shorter sentences or even rehabilitation. So it has led to significant incarceration, no question about it, and minorities tend to be the ones busted the most,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told The News Station just off the House floor.

“Part of the social justice movement in this country is to right past wrongs. And some wrongs are not, you know, 50 years ago,” Thompson said. “They could be five months ago. They could be a year ago.”

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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