• April 14, 2021

Will Trump, GOP Electoral College Challenge Hamper Marijuana Reform?

 Will Trump, GOP Electoral College Challenge Hamper Marijuana Reform?

Photo by Matt Laslo

The progressive ranks of the Democratic Party grew in November, and they’re itching to flex that new muscle within the Capitol — and down the street in soon-to-be President Joe Biden’s more moderate White House. But some of their top agenda items — like reversing mass incarceration, which includes legalizing marijuana — have been put on the back burner, because President Donald Trump and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill are contesting the certification of returns from the Electoral College.

When asked if she’s talked to the eight new progressives — four of whom were supported by one or all members of The Squad — about marijuana reform and their goal of reversing mass incarceration and ending the war on ‘drugs,’ Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said they’ve been a little preoccupied.

“Yeah, right now, we’re trying to save democracy, and then maybe at the end of the week we’ll get to it,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station through a nervous smile.

As the de facto leader of The Squad — mostly because Fox News made her a household name, and because she’s got about five million more Twitter followers than Speaker Nancy Pelosi — Ocasio-Cortez is itching to move her party’s octogenarian party leaders on drug policy early this session.

My dream is for us to just legalize the damn thing

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

She’s been frustrated with Biden and the DNC since they moved the party backwards when they decided to back marijuana decriminalization in the party’s 2020 platform, as opposed to the legalization the party endorsed back in 2016. Progressives were also itching for a vote on the MORE Act — which would decriminalize cannabis nationally and incentivize states to expunge the records of people saddled with non-violent drug convictions — ahead of November’s elections. Party leaders relented, planned the vote, then got cold feet, and eventually punted the landmark bill until after millions of voters cast their ballots.

It eventually made history when it passed, but progressives like AOC complain it was too late.

“I want us to pass the MORE Act — and not at the end of our term, but at the beginning of our term,” Ocasio-Cortez said at the Capitol. “I mean, my dream is for us to just legalize the damn thing.”

The now sophomore lawmaker fears this latest electoral gambit from Trump and the GOP is going to make it harder for her party to work with Republicans on this and other clearly bipartisan issues.

“That’s not even about reaching across the aisle, it’s about like just who believes in democracy and who doesn’t?” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Other Democrats see it differently, including the incoming president, Joe Biden.

“When he was vice president, he presided over Trump’s victory. And I think he set an example of what you’re supposed to do,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-Lou.), who is leaving the House to join the Biden administration as a senior adviser, told The News Station while walking in the basement of the Capitol.

Richmond, like his new boss, disagrees with Ocasio-Cortez. The new administration is looking for any bright side they can find.

“We need to get to the point of healing this country and coming back together,” Richmond contends.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t buying the kumbaya-line coming from the top of her party though.

“We have different theories of change, right?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “At a certain point, people need to take a step back and say, ‘With members who don’t respect democracy, how are you going to treat a person who doesn’t even believe in elections with any sort of seriousness?’”

Still, Ocasio-Cortez isn’t worried about their agenda being derailed.

“I’m actually not super worried in that respect. Of course, I’m more worried about the actual challenge and the precedents that they’re establishing,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “[I’m] also quite worried that the president’s committing crimes, and we’re kind of stutter stepping on how we hold him accountable. But in terms of the agenda itself, given the fact that there’s a lot going on, [like] bracing for the president-elect’s inauguration, this is naturally a transitionary time anyway.”

Transitions are temporary, but bitter feelings can last forever.

We need to get to the point of healing this country and coming back together

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D)

Other Democrats are hoping for a resurgence of bipartisanship on issues where the two parties agree, which for the past 12 or more years have been derailed at the altar of attaining power by any means necessary (and even unnecessary). Marijuana remains at the top of that list.

“I think that’s one of those issues that, in many ways, defies partisan labels,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) told The News Station outside the Capitol. “I think there are people who feel, you know, differently in both political parties on that issue.”  

Still, Maloney and other Democrats are kind of in-between the Biden camp and the progressive wing of the party. They’re waiting to make up their minds, though their eyes are firmly on the roll call vote over whether to certify the Electoral College returns or not.

“We should remember that the Constitution and our institutions are only as strong as the people who serve here and who either believe in them or don’t,” Maloney said. “And you’re going to get a pretty good roll call of who believes in our institutions and who thinks the ends justify the means on Wednesday.”

But even some Republicans helping lead this charge for investigating the presidential election — which has already been investigated, with 59 of 60 courts rejecting challenges from the Trump camp — are itching for marijuana reform.

“I think it’s an open question: Can any Senate pass any cannabis bill?” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — a darling of Fox News and reliable lapdog for President Trump — told The News Station.

“The House has passed historic cannabis reform. It would be nice to see the Senate do something,” Gaetz said just off the House floor. “My suspicion is, you know, cannabis reform would pass if given a vote. So let’s see what the Senate’s work product is, how far that differs from the MORE Act, and whether or not we could get a bill going.”  

Time will tell if Democrats like AOC can get over this attempted coup by Republicans like Gaetz. But many other Republicans are standing up to the president on this last ditch, Trumpian effort to overthrow the explicit will of the American people.

And some of those Republicans are aligned with progressives when it comes to marijuana legalization, especially in regards to Pelosi and company listening to Nixonian-era anti-drug rhetoric as opposed to reading contemporary polls.

If Trump had made marijuana decriminalization part of his platform, I guarantee you he would have found 20,000 votes in Georgia

Rep. Thomas Massie (R)

Though many of those Republicans are still smarting after Democrats moved the MORE Act — the progressive version of decriminalization — as opposed to a clean bill that doesn’t include progressive items, like redistribution of tax revenue from cannabis sales to communities hit hardest by the war on ‘drugs.’

“For some reason, even the Democrats are afraid of that. They did it after the election. I don’t understand why they don’t just put a straight up legalization vote [on the floor],” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) told The News Station. “It had at least two poison pills. You’re going to set up a new, woke program, and you’re going to set up a tax. And it’s not even clear that if you lived in Colorado or one of these states that already legalized it that that bill improved it for you. So I have voted for it and I’ve co-sponsored it and I would vote for it, but I’m not going to vote for the virtue signaling exercise with poison pills.”

Massie even laments Trump’s handling of this issue, which is widely viewed as some of the lowest hanging fruit in contemporary Washington.

“If Trump had made marijuana decriminalization part of his platform, I guarantee you he would have found 20,000 votes in Georgia and 100,000 in Pennsylvania and 100,000 in Wisconsin,” a mask-less Massie said.

Ocasio-Cortez is open to working with Republicans like Massie. But after four years of sloshing around in a Trump-sized swamp, there aren’t many good feelings floating around Washington these days. Still, she’s willing to give it a shot on issues as popular and bipartisan as cannabis and prison reform.

“Where there are Republicans who believe in democracy,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station, “there’s some sort of fledgling hope that you can work with them.”

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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