Monday, December 27, 2021
Looking back and forward suggests pessimism (with a hint of hope?) for federal marijuana reform in 2022
A couple of notable new commentaries on federal marijuana reform caught my eye recently. This first one is by Alex Shephard at The New Republic under this full headline: "Legalize It, Already!: Biden needs to ditch his old-fashioned ideas about marijuana and realize that legalization is a winning bipartisan issue — something he desperately needs in 2022." This piece is more about marijuana politics than policy, and here are a few passages with an emphasis on the White House:
“You would think that President Biden would embrace legalization, considering where his constituents are on this issue,” Chris Lindsey, legislative analyst at the Marijauna Policy Project, told me. Per a recent Pew survey, 60 percent of Americans favor full legalization, while 31 percent favor legalizing marijuana for medical use only, meaning that a whopping 91 percent of Americans are in favor. And while several states have relaxed laws or fully legalized weed, the federal government is trailing....
Given the general sense of inertia in Congress, there are other less far-reaching but still important things the Biden administration could do. The Cole memo, issued by Eric Holder in 2013 and revoked by Jeff Sessions five years later, instructed U.S. attorneys not to enforce federal marijuana laws. That memo could be reinstated and even expanded to other departments. Biden could offer clemency to people currently imprisoned for nonviolent cannabis-related offenses and pardons for them and those who have been released.
All of this would be better politically and morally, and in policy terms, than what Democrats are doing now. “You would think that President Biden would embrace legalization, considering where his constituents are on this issue,” Lindsey told me. “There’s really no question [about] the level of support that they have, and yet the president seems to be AWOL.” After a year ending with political and legislative inertia — and with Biden’s tanking poll numbers, particularly among young people — marijuana policy would be the perfect place to start.
This second one is by John Hudak at Brookings under the headline: "The numbers for drug reform in Congress don’t add up." This piece effectively details some political cross-currents thwarting reform progress in Congress. It should be read in full, and here are some highlights:
Often, in a legislative body, the issue is not whether a law should be reformed, but how that law should be reformed. And there’s the rub for federal legalization legislation. Liberals and progressives in the Democratic Party cannot agree with moderate and libertarian Republicans on what cannabis reform should look like, even if majorities agree that the law should be changed. And as pro-cannabis reform members from both sides dig their heels in on the importance of provisions that are close to their heart (and the heart of their base), it makes assembling that coalition impossible....
It is clear that as a legalization bill shifts away from a pro-business direction, the number of Republican supporters plummets. And while in a Democratic-controlled House, leadership can muster the votes to pass something like the MORE Act, the requirement to beat a filibuster in the Senate makes passage of more social equity and racial justice-oriented comprehensive legislation an impossibility. It is not clear if Democrats can even keep all 50 of their Democratic members in line for such a vote, and it is a certainty that they cannot attract the 10 or more Republicans necessary to clear the 60-vote hurdle. And more moderate legislation that could attract more Republicans will likely lose the more progressive members of the Senate Democratic Caucus....
Ultimately, cannabis reform supporters inside and outside of Congress need a reality check about the state of play of current cannabis reform proposals, and what additional complications the future may offer. Regardless of the chosen path forward, there will be naysayers, holdouts, resistance, and anger. There will be accusations of bloated government or not doing enough to reverse the effects of the drug war. That is standard for an interest group environment on a passionate issue in a deliberative body. However, in the end, Congress has a choice between doing nothing and letting prohibition win the day and allowing all of the consequences of that to remain. Or doing something short of perfect, that addresses some of the real harms that drug prohibition has created in this country.
Looking for a hint of hope in these stories, I am drawn to notion that, if the Biden team concludes that Congress is unlikely to get much (if anything) done on this front in 2022, it might look for "safe" executive action that serves as a political winner in this space. And, as I see it, a clemency initiative focused around certain marijuana offenders — maybe not one as robust as urged by many advocates, but still impactful — could be a huge political winner.
Frustratingly, I know I am projecting a vision of what I hope will happen soon, not an account of what seems likely in the short term (or even long term). But I really want to believe there are "safe" and smart and impactful ways for Prez Biden to start leaning in to this issue at least a bit more. And at some point he has to at least try in some way to deliver on his 2020 campaign promise to "Decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions."
UPDATE on 12/28: I see that the Wall Street Journal now has this new article in a similar vein discussing the challenges of federal marijuana reform under this full headline: "Cannabis Overhaul in Washington Is Only Getting Harder: Legalization agenda could be complicated by states that want to defend their nascent marijuana industries and associated tax revenues."