U.S. Capitol. Photo by Matt Laslo

The Senate Marijuana Strategy Has a Biden-Sized Roadblock Ahead

WASHINGTON – The three powerful Senate Democrats who just unveiled their blueprint for federal marijuana decriminalization – which is coupled with an effort to expunge the records of people locked in federal prison for nonviolent cannabis offenses — are barreling full steam ahead. While it remains unclear if the math for passage even adds up in the Senate, they know the effort faces uncertainty in President Joe Biden’s White House.  

“Look, there’s a big division of the Biden administration,” Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden told The News Station at the Capitol, “I’ve said — you know, not with respect to the politics [of the White House] – I’ve said, look, the federal government still seems to, you know, go back to the year of Reefer Madness.”  

“Who’s that good for?” I asked.  

“I think if we do our job here in the days ahead and get out there to these red state [senators], — you know, states where people have voted [for legalization] and say, ‘What happened to states’ rights?’ — we’ve got a lot to work with,” the Oregon Democrat continued, “and I am making it, with respect to this issue, my central message in terms of winning Republican votes.”

But Republican senators don’t wield veto pens. President Biden does, and he doesn’t like marijuana. His press secretary, Jen Psaki, made that clear after Wyden, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) unveiled the broad blueprint of the decriminalization measure they plan to formally introduce soon.

“I’ve spoken in the past about the president’s views on marijuana. Nothing has changed and there’s no new endorsements of legislation today,” the White House press secretary said, brushing aside the question.

That lukewarm backhand of the measure reverberated across Capitol Hill.

“But is your job harder without the bully pulpit of the White House?” I ask Wyden. “And Biden’s actually moved back – he moved the party: The 2016 agenda for the party was more progressive than the 2020…”       

“I just want people to know that our job now is to recognize that the way you push the political system forward is you generate this grassroots juggernaut,” Wyden contended.  

The powerful senator says his office’s land lines and his personal cell have been inundated with supportive messages after their presser last Wednesday.

“I can’t tell you in the last few days how many people from all over the country have, you know, called emailed, texted and said, ‘Ron, love your states’ rights argument,’” Wyden said. “I am using this argument so as to create a space for a Republican United States senator to say, ‘I’ve always been a states’ rights-er, and that’s what this bill does.’”  

While Wyden is focusing on wooing skeptical Republicans with his states’ rights argument, Schumer is vowing to pull every lever of power his caucus has afforded him in delivering their collective Democratic Party promise to voters.

“I will use my clout as majority leader to make this a priority in the Senate,” Schumer vowed to congressional reporters at their marijuana press conference.  

With Wyden focused on winning over Republicans, Schumer working the Senate floor schedule – along with his fellow Democrats — what’s Booker up to? He’s still trying to charm this White House.

While even The Onion gets Biden’s firm opposition to marijuana, Booker remains a believer in the Biden Administration. While he looks up to the former vice president-turned-president, before they were rivals in prime time debates, he worked closely with now-Vice President Kamala Harris. Back in her Senate days, they worked together on everything from Justice in Policing to anti-lynching measures and even endorsed each other’s competing marijuana decriminalization proposals.

But Vice President Kamala Harris has distanced herself from her Senate-self, at least according to her aide who reportedly told Bloomberg, “Harris’s positions are now the same as Biden’s.” That means Booker’s ties to the Veep don’t matter that much on this issue. But the junior senator from New Jersey is forever the optimist – even when it comes to the Biden Administration and weed.

“I think that he is in favor of de-scheduling marijuana, which is generally what we do [in our bill],” Booker told The News Station while rushing up an escalator on his way to the Senate floor to cast a vote.

“I would find it hard to believe that they’re against the restorative justice elements of it,” Booker said of the Biden administration once we were riding up the ‘Senators Only’ elevator.

“You think he’ll be forced to sign it if it comes to his desk?” I ask.

“I don’t think ‘forced’ – they have not spoken about anything in particular that they’re against,” Booker maintained as the elevator doors started opening. “They really haven’t.”

“But they seem really anti-[marijuana] – drug testing staffers, putting restraints on D.C. in their budget?”

“Yeah,” Booker said. “This is a longer conversation, but I don’t have time. It’s a longer conversation.”

He then popped onto the ornate Senate floor, cast his vote and walked back towards the bank of elevators.

“I’ve got time,” I said through a broad smile.

But Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who Booker is negotiating policing reform with, was walking up behind me, which Booker took advantage of to unleash one of his signature, awkwardly smooth quips.

“I famously…” Booker said to me as he greeted Sen. Scott, “…unlike Tim, I accused the president of being high on drugs.”

Jokes didn’t work for Booker in the Democratic presidential primary. And marijuana’s no joke. Millions of Americans have been imprisoned over it, as Booker knows well from his time as mayor of Newark. Millions of others have lost federal educational, housing, public service and economic opportunities over a run-in with the police while they had the popular, sticky and green substance on them – all issues Booker and Harris helped spotlight during the crowded Democratic presidential primary.

Now with 19 states and voters in the nation’s capital having legalized marijuana for recreational use, 37 states allowing cannabis for medicinal purposes and steady polling showing more than 60% of voters coast to coast supportive of legalization (a PEW poll in April even pegged support at 90%), there seems to be few spots left in America where marijuana is controversial.

The problem for Democrats on Capitol Hill — especially those in power in the usually staid Senate — is that the Biden Administration is one of those few islands of cannabis opposition left in America.

When I first hopped on an elevator with Sen. Wyden, as he was trekking back to his suite in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, he asked which topic I wanted to discuss.

“Marijuana,” I replied.  

“Yeah!!!” Oregon’s senior senator replied through a broad smile, welcoming our relatively long, if impromptu, interview on the subject.  

“There’s excitement when you talk about it. What did you think of Biden’s response [to your bill]…” I ask, before correcting myself, “or his non-response?”    

“Listen, political change is not top down,” Wyden – repeating something he’s told himself, voters and reporters countless times in his now 40 years serving in Washington – told The News Station, “It’s grassroots up.”

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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