The Senate’s highest-ranking Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, reversed his position on marijuana this week and introduced legislation to legalize the drug on the federal level.
The news, which arrived on the informal marijuana holiday 4/20, is yet another sign that the Democratic Party’s establishment is embracing reform. The bad news, however, is that it won’t matter unless Republicans, who still control the House and Senate, also get on board. And that seems highly unlikely.
Only a handful of Republicans, including Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, currently support marijuana legalization. While the White House recently said President Trump would work with Gardner to protect state-level legalization, the GOP as a whole remains behind the curve. Polls show a growing majority of American voters want legalization, and Schumer and the Democrats are eager to capitalize.
“So why have I changed my stance? Looking at the numbers helped,” Schumer explained via a tweetstorm Friday morning. “2/3 of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized; meanwhile, more than half of all drug arrests in the United States are marijuana arrests.”
Schumer joins several of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate and the House, such as Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who have called for removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances, which would also allow states to fully legalize marijuana if they choose.
“So why have I changed my stance? Looking at the numbers helped”
Such shifts among the biggest names in the Democratic Party, however, aren’t likely to create any immediate changes in the country’s laws.
"I'm against legalizing marijuana,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said during his last election campaign. “To sort of send the message that we're giving up, you know, that this is just the way it's going to be, then one thing leads to another and pretty soon…you completely transform your society in a way that I think certainly most Kentuckians would not agree with."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is among the most adamant opponents of marijuana in the country. "We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger," he said at a Senate hearing in April 2016, when he was a senator.
As attorney general, Sessions has repealed an Obama-era policy that shielded states with legal weed from a federal crackdown, and has repeatedly stated his belief that “marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a crime.”
Democrats used to agree with people like Sessions, in part because they were scared that Republicans would attack them as soft-on-crime, hippie-loving liberals. Plus, the political conventional wisdom was that the issue didn’t matter to most voters except politically indifferent stoners.
But public polling has tracked a dramatic shift in public attitudes. Last October, Gallup found that 64 percent of Americans believed marijuana use ought to be legal, the highest level of support in five decades of polling the issue. For the first time, a majority of Republicans, 51 percent, also supported legalization.
Other polls have yielded slightly different results. The Pew Research Center found in January that while a whopping 61 percent of Americans favor legalization, up from 57 percent a year ago, the idea is only popular with 43 percent of Republicans. However, that poll also revealed a schism between the GOP’s older and younger voters. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans younger than 40 supported legalization, those aged 40 to 64 were split nearly 50-50 on the issue, and people over 65 were against it by a two-to-one majority.
While most Republican lawmakers remain largely opposed to legalization, there are signs that some are recognizing the shift in public sentiment. Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who long opposed marijuana law reforms when he was in office, announced last week that his thinking had “evolved” and that he will join the board of advisers for Acreage Holdings, a marijuana corporation that does business in 11 states.
Also last week, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah joined with Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California to call on Sessions and the Justice Department to stop the Drug Enforcement Administration from blocking research into medical marijuana. “Research on marijuana is necessary for evidence-based decision-making,” the senators wrote.
Republican governors across the country are also taking more expansive views on marijuana. Vermont’s Republican governor signed a bill to legalize it earlier this year, and Republican gubernatorial candidate for New York Joel Giambra is running this year on a platform calling for legalizing marijuana and using the tax revenue to fix New York City’s subway system.
This month, McConnell also renewed his push to legalize hemp, a cousin of marijuana that doesn’t get users high and has industrial and medical applications. That follows Gardner’s announcement that Trump has agreed to back legislation that would formally sanction state-level legalization. Gardner is reportedly “80 percent finished” with the bill, which would also allow marijuana businesses to have access to banks.
So while Schumer’s legislation is very unlikely to go anywhere this year, both parties appear to be retreating from their past objections to marijuana. That could mean that by the next 4/20, Republican leaders might finally support your right to blaze.
Cover image: A young marijuana plant is held by Joy Hollingsworth, of the Hollingsworth Cannabis Company, Thursday, April 12, 2018, in one of the company's pot growing facilities near Shelton, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)