Democratic Leadership in Congress has Itself to Blame for Time Running Out on Approving National Marijuana Legalization

by | Nov 15, 2022

United States Senate member Cory Booker (D-NJ) says Republican gains in the US Congress in the midterm election mean the lame duck session ending in January is crunch time for passing national marijuana legalization. “So it’s either now, or it might be many years from now” for legalization, concluded Booker in a post-election interview at NJ Spotlight News. Though marijuana legalization has majority support among Republican voters, support is significantly higher among Democratic voters. This does suggest that the new Republican majority leadership in the House of Representatives will have less interest in advancing legalization than did the Democratic leadership it will be replacing.

But, it should also be recognized that the Democratic House leadership in place since January of 2019 has played politics with marijuana legalization instead of pursuing a course that had any hope of putting legalization into law. A straight-forward legalization bill that just declares an end to the US government’s war on marijuana and leaves it up to each state to deal with marijuana as it chooses may have passed in the House with the votes of all or nearly all Democrats and of many Republican House members as well. It then also would have a chance of passing in the Senate with its narrow Republican majority through January of 2021 and its razor-thin Democratic majority since then, as well as being signed into law by President Donald Trump up to January of 2020 or, later, by President Joe Biden. Trump and Biden have both expressed openness to national legalization.

Instead of following this course that could lead to legalization, House Democratic leadership pushed, year after year, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that was guaranteed to be a virtually Democrats-only bill due to its inclusion of race-based provisions and subsidies for marijuana businesses — provisions that are anathema to Republican legislators. Indeed, while the bill racked up many Democratic cosponsors in the House, it could only gain one Republican cosponsor. Meanwhile, the Senate version of the MORE Act had several Democratic cosponsors including Booker, but had no Republican cosponsors.

On April Fool’s Day this year, in what amounts to a prank on marijuana legalization supporters in America, the Democratic House leadership got around to having a House floor vote on its supposed vehicle for national marijuana legalization. The MORE Act, as anyone paying attention would expect, passed by a very partisan vote. All but two Democratic members voted “yes,” and all but three Republican members voted “no.” And that was the end of that. The 50-50 split Senate with supermajority requirements for moving legislation forward did nothing with the bill, as also expected. What was accomplished for legalization? Nothing. But, Democratic leadership, through its trickery of promoting as a legalization bill a bill that legalizes but also contains extraneous provisions toxic to Republican legislators in DC, was able to paint the Republicans as obstructionists against the popular goal of national marijuana legalization.

This 2022 vote result was even more partisan in its breakdown than the previous House floor vote on the MORE Act that occurred in December of 2020 — a previous lame duck period. Then, all but six Democratic members voted “yes” and all but five Republican members voted “no.” The Senate, as it would do a year and a quarter later as well, did nothing with this House approved bill.

The sole Republican MORE Act cosponsor in the House — Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) — argued in September of 2020 that, while the MORE Act was hopeless to become law, a bill narrowly focused on the US government stepping out of the way and letting states handle marijuana as they choose could be approved by the then Democratic House, Republican Senate, and President Trump. Instead of taking this course, Gaetz said, “it looks like [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)] and the Democrats would rather have the issue than have the progress.”

As Gaetz suggested, the Democratic congressional leadership appears to have chosen to ensure the continuation of the US government’s war on marijuana because the leadership’s higher priority has been to use the legislative process to paint the Democratic Party as the only party opposing marijuana prohibition.

Now it is crunch time, with Republicans ready to take over control of the House in about two months. Maybe the Democratic congressional leadership can put the political games aside and rush through a bipartisan basic legalization bill that President Biden will sign into law. If that does not happen, be prepared for Democratic Congress members in January to start blaming their Republican colleagues for the continuing of the US government’s war on marijuana.

If the Republican congressional leaders do not take smart action after the new Congress convenes in January to enact national marijuana legalization, then the Democrats’ blame of Republican leadership will be merited. But, remember, when the Democrats had control of the House — and then the Senate and presidency as well — their leadership chose to play political games with marijuana instead of pursuing a course that may have brought about national legalization.

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  • Adam Dick

    Adam worked from 2003 through 2013 as a legislative aide for Rep. Ron Paul. Previously, he was a member of the Wisconsin State Board of Elections, a co-manager of Ed Thompson's 2002 Wisconsin governor campaign, and a lawyer in New York and Connecticut.

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