Man handing out water to protestors marching for marijuana policy

Policing Reform Stalls in Senate; Leaving Cannabis Reform in Doubt

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), pictured here passing out water and protein bars as thousands protested on Capitol Hill in mid June, is calling for cannabis reform as a part of policing reform. Photo by Matt Laslo. 

WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats Wednesday derailed a GOP policing reform measure, which was likely the best chance for cannabis reform to be debated – let alone potentially become law – in the waning months of the 116th Congress.

The vote came after weeks of mostly peaceful protests, mixed with some vandalism, looting and even more raw footage of heavily militarized police officers from coast to coast using aggressive measures – from tear gas to rubber bullets – against unarmed citizens.

Many of those protests are showing no signs of letting up, which is why Democrats are gambling that by initially blocking the proposal from even being debated on the Senate floor, they’ll force Republicans to the negotiating table.

“I think what’s giving me a lot of optimism is the fact that we’ve seen sustained protests from Americans in all 50 states over the last number of weeks,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told reporters on his way to the vote at the Capitol. “I think the American public is demanding change, and that’s what we plan on trying to deliver.”

Cannabis reform, however, remains unlikely, even as polls show the majority of Americans are demanding it of the political class in Washington. A Senate stalemate on broader policing reform has – at least for now – greatly dimmed the already dim chances that cannabis reform would be seriously debated in the Senate this year. That’s in no small part because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dubbed it the “illicit cousin” of hemp – a plant he’s championed in an attempt to revitalize the economy back home in Kentucky.

Some Democrats are pressuring Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado to apply more pressure in ushering cannabis banking reform across the finish line. Gardner spearheaded the legislation in the Repulican-controlled Senate, though there has been no movement. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) says it’s time for Gardner to pony up, because he’s been telling voters President Trump is behind his bill, the STATES Act, to decriminalize marijuana federally, while enabling each state to decide its own policy.  

“I’d like to see Cory Gardner do what he said he was going to do. You know, he said from the very beginning he was going to get President Trump to really get us on the path to decriminalization,” Wyden said.

Last week, The News Station broke the news that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows laughed off a question about the president getting behind cannabis reform – including Gardner’s bill – ahead of November. A request for a comment from Gardner’s office wasn’t responded to by publication. 

The competing claims coming out of the GOP, coupled with their current inability to forge a compromise on policing reform, are partly why voters – and now some legislatures – across the nation have completely bypassed Washington and decided to legalize cannabis even though it’s still federally listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic. With medical cannabis now legal in 33 states, and with recreational legal in another 11 and the District of Columbia, Wyden says it’s evident everyday voters have given up on Washington and are solving these issues on their own. 

“Of course. They’re tired of all the foot dragging,” Wyden said. “They’re tired of all the foot dragging.” 

Despite the unlikely prospect of action, a growing number of Democrats are calling for marijuana decriminalization to be part of any broader police reform. They point to racial disparities in American drug arrests, which are so blatant they’ve even brought a rebuke from the United Nations. And the lingering federal prohibition on cannabis in many states continues to enable a disproportionate number of African Americans to be legally harassed and/or arrested for simple possession. 

“Certainly drugs are an important part of racial justice,” Wyden said. “Here you have, you know, an example where many, many people voted for… legalization in my community. It was overwhelming. It was people of color. It was people of all political philosophies, so I think yeah: This is a fundamental justice issue.”      

Issues like that, along with a myriad of others stemming from lingering racial inequality, are why tensions were so high on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers in both parties accusing their counterparts of playing politics ahead of the November election. That’s why many Republicans are questioning whether a good faith negotiation on police reform is even possible.

“The key is that if you want to make progress now, you make progress now. If you would rather wait until November and see how the election turns out, I guess you wait till November to see how the election turns out,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told The News Station after delivering a long and impassioned floor speech where he accused Democrats of politicking; not legislating.  

And Scott – the bill’s author and only African American Republican in the Senate – says he’s unsure if the two sides can hammer out their differences in the coming weeks and months.

“I don’t know. It’s up to them,” Scott said. “I mean, it’s really up to them. We have put our best cards on the table.”

While Democrats want to ban police chokeholds and no-knock drug warrants (like the one that led to the recent death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky), the GOP legislation stops far short of those demands. Rather, it encourages police forces to ban chokeholds by threatening to withhold federal funds if they don’t. It also would establish a federal tracking system to monitor how no-knock warrants are used nationwide, while also setting up a commission to examine potential policing reforms for a future Congress to take up (or reject). 

Frustration has  partly grown due to what McConnell and the GOP did this week when they put a limited policing bill on the floor without accepting any Democratic input, like the cannabis reform proposals that have been championed by the likes of Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Durbin told The News Station that McConnell’s aim with the policing reform bill was merely to “check the box and move on.” The whip is now calling for the Judiciary Committee to take up policing reform so lawmakers can debate an array of proposals, including those on drug reform.

“Why doesn’t Mitch McConnell trust his own committee chairs? He has a majority on all these committees, and yet, he says, ‘take it straight to the floor; take it to a vote,’ and that’s it,” Durbin said.

But Republicans were left smarting after Democrats blocked the GOP proposal from even coming up for debate (which in Washington-speak is dubbed, ‘cloture’).

“If Sen. Durbin would like marijuana legalization to be part of the bill, then why doesn’t he support cloture so we can, you know, proceed with the bill and offer this amendment?” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told The News Station. “They’d rather flap their gums and do nothing, than do something, and that’s really unfortunate.”

They’d rather flap their gums and do nothing, than do something, and that’s really unfortunate

Sen. Kevin Cramer

But civil and racial unrest are still boiling over in certain regions, including in front of the White House where peaceful protestors were forcefully cleared by police officers on Tuesday while Madison, Wisconsin witnessed the toppling of statues and the alleged beating of a state senator that evening.

That’s partly why Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) argued moving forward with the GOP policing reform could help calm the unrest.

“I would hope so. It shows action. It shows sincerity. That we’re trying to do something,” Johnson told The News Station. “It doesn’t solve all the problems, but it moves us in the right direction.” 

Democrats aren’t buying that much repeated GOP line though. 

“Oh please,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told The News Station. “Give me a break.”

“Start with something bipartisan so that the amendment process is more likely to be fair,” Whitehouse said. “Then at the end of the day, we’re more likely to have something that really is something.”

The U.S. House of Representatives takes up policing reform Thursday. It remains unclear if a single Republican will support that proposal, which was crafted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants. 

After all the tears shed, charges filed, miles marched and tear gas inhaled – all a part of the growing chorus demanding justice for African Americans – this Congress could end where it began on policing reform, even as both sides of the great political divide claim that, like their voters, they’re sick of the status quo, even as they barrel ahead with this debate that is looking increasingly likely to cement the status quo into the legal code for at least another seven months, if not much, much longer. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee has held one hearing on the topic in recents weeks. No further hearings are scheduled at the moment, and there’s no plan for another one. 

So what’s next for that powerful committee? The News Station took that question to Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)  as he walked underneath the Capitol on his way to vote.  

“I don’t know,” Graham shrugged. 

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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