Democrats lose control of marijuana messaging

Democrats lose control of marijuana messaging

Marijuana legalization has far-reaching national support from Democrats, independents and even a majority of Republicans, multiple polls show. Democrats have touted the MORE Act all summer as a criminal justice reform bill, amid ongoing protests over racial equity that a majority of the public supports. A disproportionate number of Black or brown people are arrested for cannabis possession each year, and this bill aims to reduce arrests and erase some marijuana criminal records.

Democrats also wanted to use this historic bill — legislation to remove federal penalties on marijuana never passed out of committee until earlier this year, let alone had a floor vote — to show that legalization would be possible if Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.

But that message has been hijacked.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hit House Democrats on Monday on weed, saying Dems are prioritizing marijuana over the massive public health and economic fallout from the pandemic. Democrats retort that the House passed a $3 trillion coronavirus aid package in May — and the Republican Senate has not yet taken it up. Senate Republicans introduced their own coronavirus package last week, but it did not get enough votes to clear a procedural hurdle.

Moderate Democrats, such as Reps. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), Max Rose (N.Y.), Lucy McBath (Ga.) and Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.), have been hit by Republicans for supporting a bill to “defund the police” — despite the fact that the bill does not defund police, but rather would create a national database to track offenses and crack down on excessive force. Those attacks, however, have increased worries about how voting to expunge cannabis records will play among voters already uneasy about broad police reform.

House leaders are now talking about punting the marijuana decriminalization bill — which was planned for a vote next week — until the lame duck session, in hopes of soothing moderate worries weeks before the election and getting a higher vote count for the weed bill in return.

“I’m not worried about [the marijuana bill]; I’m for it. I’d like to get it done,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Tuesday, but added that lawmakers need to concentrate on coronavirus aid and funding the government. “The other bills are not timely. We could pass them today, [or] we can pass them tomorrow.”

Even though the bill is not likely to pass the Senate, House Democrats thought the messaging created by this bill was important. Progressives and Democrat strategists say the marijuana vote would actually help in most congressional races and that a vote for the measure won’t turn away voters in droves.

“If you’re trying to punt it as a result of a political calculation, I disagree with that calculation,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of the bill. “This is an enormously popular policy — not just for our base, but it’s also very popular amongst certain parts of registered Republican voters and independent voters. I think this is a win-win-win policy, and I think that we should be doing this before the election.”

Political strategists say that while each House race has its own dynamics, moderates should see the MORE Act as a way to turn out both their Democratic base and undecided independents and not worry about how it plays to voters worried about the “defund the police” movement.

“If you’re already motivated on the [idea that] the thundering hordes are coming over into your suburbs to take away your wife and imprison you in a socialist hell, I’m not sure being for [marijuana] is going to add any fuel to that fire,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist.

Talking about marijuana has helped boost turnout in past elections, said Sal Pace, a former Colorado House minority leader who now is a consultant focusing on the role cannabis plays in political races. He said targeting voters who care about cannabis helped increase turnout during now-Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ 2018 campaign, which he worked on.

“If a candidate is talking about cannabis in an effective way, and they’re running against someone who is not pro-cannabis legalization, that issue can be used to turn out young voters,” Pace said.

And with the national focus on criminal justice reform, many progressive say this bill should be a lock.

“This should be seen as a prime opportunity to address a form of systemic racism,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), pointing out that the number of co-sponsors on the bill has jumped from 87 to 111 in the last two weeks.

Anti-legalization advocates, however, say the pandemic is not the right time to consider marijuana legislation.

“Allowing a massive corporate takeover of an addictive drug with scientifically proven public health harms is not good for our nation as we continue to grapple with a global pandemic, along with a crippling opioid crisis,” read a letter sent by a coalition of advocates to House leaders on Tuesday.


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