WASHINGTON – Two years ago — as a freshman, though a newbie quickly becoming a household acronym — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was mocked and laughed at by countless senior lawmakers, because the progressive known for pushing most every envelope she was handed in her congressional orientation packet had stepped way out of bounds. Her perceived political sin was offering an amendment to upend decades of anti-drug policy through simply removing a prohibition on how Schedule I drugs — like psilocybin (aka shrooms), ibogaine (a psychedelic used in many nations to help ease people off opioids) and MDMA (think ecstasy) — are allowed to be discussed.
Unsurprisingly, in 2019 the guffaws, whispers and bursts of laughter led to a resounding defeat of the progressive’s amendment — she mustered the support of only 91 of her colleagues. This week AOC saw her amendment defeated again. As a more mature sophomore, she’s learned Washington math and sees the addition of 49 more supporters — especially in such a short time span — as a win, even if her ultimate goal of a victory remains unrealized.
“I do think that the times are changing pretty rapidly as well on it.”AOC
“That’s a huge increase in support. That’s a leap. That’s not like a step,” AOC told The News Station while walking to the Capitol. “And so I think that’s great. I’m really excited about it.”
The final vote tally was 140 to 285. That exceeded her expectations, and now she says she can see the finish line on the horizon.
“My hope was for us to break 100 votes on this. That was, like, my main goal,” AOC said. “Way higher than I had expected, and so I feel very, very encouraged by it. I mean, 140 members, and we need to get to 218 to pass.”
Math is Different in D.C.
Elation aside, she seems to have a math problem on her hands. But according to Washington math, the 78 more votes she needs become more realistic annually, as an older generation of lawmakers continues to be cycled out of the calculation through retirements, electoral defeats or just the normal cycle of life and death.
“I think a lot of this is just a generational issue. I mean, last time I presented this amendment there were members that were literally laughing at me, calling it, ‘Oh, this is a shroom bill,’ and all this other stuff. And this is actually about treating mental illness,” the congresswoman lamented of the derision she’s faced from colleagues in both parties.
She’s talking about those diseases all too common for many, like veterans debilitated by PTSD, mothers plagued by depression and those crippled by the pressure and resulting anxiety woven into the fabric of contemporary American living.
AOC’s legislation is targeted toward a little-known string of words which were tucked inside of the federal statute books in 1996, where they’ve remained since. Known as a rider — which is basically when a lawmaker hitches some restrictive language onto a larger, must-pass spending bill — the language AOC wants removed prohibits any federal dollars going toward “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I.” The impact of that prohibitive language has basically banned American researchers from studying an array of potentially healing substances because they’ve been enshrined by the D.E.A. as Schedule 1 drugs.
After AOC’s own party helped tank her inaugural effort, this time around many of her fellow Democrats — including 45 who opposed it two years ago — studied her proposal more closely and agreed it’s a smart, targeted, health-focused measure. While AOC lobbied many of her colleagues personally to garner support, a number of lawmakers heard earfuls from their constituents after opposing it, while others seem to have merely adapted with the times. And U.S. drug policy in 2021 is light-years ahead of where the nation was in 2019.
Back then marijuana was recreationally legal in 11 states and the nation’s capital; now it’s been legalized in 19 states — and the trend doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. But weed is old news (at least to anyone not imprisoned or who lost career opportunities for consuming or being arrested with the federally illegal substance). In November Oregon voters decriminalized possession of all drugs, and for a period this year they were joined by Washington state after its Supreme Court voided its drug possession law; simple possession of drugs is now just a misdemeanor there.
Psychedelics Sweeping the Nation
Psychedelics are now en vogue from coast to coast. Denver was first, but now psilocybin — again, it’s the compound that puts the magic in some mushrooms — is basically decriminalized in the nation’s capital, Cambridge, Northampton and Somerville, Mass., Oakland and Santa Cruz, Calif. and Ann Arbor, Mich. Connecticut and conservative Texas recently approved studies of the substance — along with others, like MDMA and ketamine, etc. And trendsetting California is expected to join them soon, though with straight legalization of an array of psychedelics.
That wasn’t lost on the state’s six representatives who switched their votes from “no” to “yes” in a span of two years — especially not those rumored to be eyeing statewide office.
“I did more research on the bill,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told The News Station after voting in favor of the amendment he opposed last time around.
“Was yours one of the offices that got lots of calls on it?” we asked.
“I don’t know what kind of calls we may have gotten, but I’ve got to go,” Schiff said while still a good five paces from his car.
“Last question. What did your research show? Do you think [psilocybin] shows promise?”
He stared blankly, took a few steps and shut his car door.
“This place has too many boomers.”Matt Gaetz
While some politicians don’t want to discuss drug policy, others get almost giddy when you bring the subject up.
“Psilocybin’s exciting!” Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) bragged with excitement in his voice when The News Station asked him about it Tuesday. “Connecticut, by the way, did legalize.”
And Himes has been reading up on it.
Still, this is Washington, so while he’s all in on legalization, he opposed AOC’s amendment. Words matter, especially when it comes to what most of us see as dry legislative text. And for AOC to rescind what Congress approved in 1996 — the measure that squelched research — her amendment strikes language barring federal dollars from going to “promote” these substances. To Himes, AOC’s amendment goes too far in the opposite direction.
“I don’t think the government should be pushing it either way,” Himes argued. “Remember, this was a question about whether the government should be promoting it.”
For transparency’s sake it should be noted: during a vote series Wednesday Himes and AOC were walking to the Capitol together. The congressman knew what I wanted to discuss but he mispronounced psilocybin.
“Sill-O-Cy-bin, sir,” I coached him, before — as a resident of Washington where shrooms are all but legal — I extended the wonky former Goldman Sachs investment banker a neighborly offer. “Come over to my house and try it any time,” I told him.
“Gonzo journalism at its best,” he said, as he and AOC cracked up.
Getting to 218 Won’t Be Easy
Even with an increasing number of Democrats praising the science fueling this contemporary American revolution, the road to House passage — which demands the support of 218 lawmakers — is far from paved.
Many more moderate Democrats remain nervous when drug policy comes up, because they’re coached by political consultants to oppose the measures, even as large and boisterous swaths of the party’s base are energized by these issues.
Suburban Philadelphia Rep. Chrissy Houlahan was a part of AOC’s freshman class. She discussed the measure with her progressive New York colleague in 2019, and still opposed the measure. She opposed it again, and it seems her position is cemented in place because this time around there was no effort to woo her by AOC.
“Did she talk to you about it?” The News Station asked.
“No, not since last time,” she sheepishly replied — almost as if she were embarrassed or just didn’t want to discuss the topic with a reporter.
“Ted Cruz told me he may support it. What’s that make you think?”
She grinned with locked lips, signaling she wasn’t taking the bait. Her thumbs then popped skyward.
“Thumbs up?” I said, noting the gesture on my recorder.
“No comment,” she replied, smiled and got in a waiting car.
“I don’t think the government should be pushing it either way. Remember, this was a question about whether the government should be promoting it.”Jim Himes
For other Democrats, even those from states with more lax drug laws, these issues remain complex. As this sizable block of lawmakers individually calculates the pros and cons of loosening drug laws, they say the risks are too great and the dangers outweigh the potential benefits. And the ultimate decision is often the result of a family conversation, Washington-style.
“We’re a pro-marijuana state, but I also think that my staff is just a little antsy about moving a little further out than that,” Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) told The News Station while strolling across the Capitol grounds. “We’ve done a lot of work regarding meth and some other things — and ecstasy and MDMA — and we get a lot of that in from Canada, and it’s more of a problem for us than anything, so I don’t think we’re ready for that.
“So maybe Ocasio-Cortez is onto something on this, but I don’t think we’re ready in our state for that,” Larsen honestly admitted.
Many in GOP Still Laughing, Others Don’t Read
That’s the difference between the two parties on these issues. Take one of Larsen’s GOP colleagues, a former party leader actually. Minutes before Tuesday night’s vote, The News Station caught up with Washington state Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
“Do you know how you’re going to vote on it?”
“No. I don’t. Not yet,” McMorris Rodgers replied as she was walking up the steps leading to the House floor.
Just as her voting record shows from her days serving as a loyal lieutenant to both former Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, McMorris Rodgers joined all but seven Republicans in voting exactly how GOP leaders whipped the rank and file to and she opposed the measure.
She’s not alone in voting on legislation she didn’t bother researching herself, though many other Republicans knew exactly what they were voting on — their “no” votes made them smile.
“Did you think about it?” I asked Rep. Chuck Fleischmann.
“No. No. I didn’t,” the Tennessee Republican said through the heartiest laugh I’ve heard from him in his 11 years in Washington.
“But you know that’s one of the reasons I’ve always, kind of, voted against marijuana,” he said, “because that’s that same slippery slope. You’ve seen it in Oregon and some of the other states. Once you start…”
“This is actually about treating mental illness.”AOC
Fleischmann never finished the thought, even as Rep. Louis Gohmert never started a thought.
“Your state just moved on this…” I said of a measure which became law last month.
“Really?” the Texas Republican replied. “Yeah, I wasn’t familiar.”
“You guys opened it up to study psilocybin and some psychedelics — specifically for veterans,” I lectured the former judge.
“See, I’m big on states’ rights and if the state wants to study it, let ‘em do it,” Gohmert said of a state he seems to have lost touch with in his 17 years as a — what’s it again, a Washington swamp creature?
“But you didn’t even see that back home?”
“Nope. I haven’t,” he — the one who regularly reminds everyone he can that he’s a former judge — said of a new law his conservative allies in the state legislature just passed.
Psychedelics are Bipartisan Outside the Beltway
While Gohmert is known to live on his own planet — even finding the need to distance himself from his own words at times — other Republicans see promise in psychedelics. In Texas, former Gov. Rick Perry turned heads nationwide (except, it seems, Gohmert’s) when he rallied support in Austin for his state’s new psilocybin measure.
In Washington, there’s less movement in the GOP, and that’s not because the party’s all ostriches. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) was one of only six Republicans to vote for AOC’s amendment this week. But since it failed in 2019, he’s lobbied his GOP colleagues on it.
“I have. I can’t say I’ve had much success,” Gaetz told The News Station ahead of the vote.
The Republican bemoans how out of touch his fellow Republicans — along with many Democrats — are on issues he views through the party’s more traditional, individual liberty lens.
“I don’t know why anybody would be against research for something that could help people, but this place has too many boomers,” Gaetz said.
As for all this legislative indifference? After spending the last 25 years here in Washington, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) says patience isn’t just a virtue — it’s a necessity for advocates of any policy issue imaginable, especially drug policy.
“Sometimes things move at a slow pace here. It has to begin somewhere. I give her the credit for having the guts to bring this up last year. She was right,” McGovern told The News Station as some of his colleagues were voting on her bill.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
The nature of Washington’s never-ending, raucous and often lie-fueled campaigns, according to the seasoned congressman, is the main reason measures like AOC’s die on Capitol Hill, even as they pick up momentum in the states.
“This is a smart, sensible vote. Part of the problem on these kinds of votes is people are always afraid because people just twist everything. Welcome to Washington — everything gets twisted and turned and distorted,” McGovern said. “But this was an impressive vote.”
AOC may still be new to Washington, but the sophomore congresswoman is a quick study. While she’s in this fight for the long haul, she’s not expecting to have to be that patient on this one.
“This is an institution that is like 10-plus years behind the times, in some aspects — and that’s a generous way of putting it,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station while heading into the Capitol to vote. “But you know, I do think that the times are changing pretty rapidly as well on it.”