In this era of hyper-partisan politics, it’s difficult to find an issue that appeals to voters across party lines. But Democratic leaders successfully identified one in the run up to the 2020 election when they pledged to reform America’s archaic and unpopular marijuana prohibition laws.
“No one should be in jail because of marijuana,” then-candidate Biden insisted on the campaign trail. “As president, I will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.”
Vote for Democrats “if you believe in decriminalizing cannabis,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer insisted just days prior to the election. “If I become majority leader, I will put this on the floor and it’s likely to pass.”
Nearly two years since, neither Biden nor Schumer has yet to make good on these promises.
The Biden administration has taken next to no substantive action — aside from firing several White House staffers who formerly consumed cannabis. In August, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated that the administration has no plans to prioritize the issue. “We don’t have anything new to share,” she said.
Although the president cannot legalize marijuana on his own, there are steps the president can take unilaterally, such as granting general amnesty to people with federal convictions for marijuana-related crimes. Thus far, Biden has simply chosen not to do so.
Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives did pass a bill repealing federal marijuana criminalization in April. Senate Democratic leaders introduced their own bill finally in July, but it hasn’t been brought to a vote.
Efforts to achieve more incremental reforms have languished. Thus far, Schumer has only allowed a vote on a research bill that received unanimous consent, but he hasn’t even moved the reconciled legislation to the president’s desk yet.
He has also declined to allow a vote on bipartisan legislation to amend federal finance laws so that state-licensed cannabis businesses can access banks and other financial services. This is despite his House colleagues advancing the legislation repeatedly — and despite over 40 of his Senate colleagues co-sponsoring the bill.
Democratic leadership’s continued inertia on this issue is unusually puzzling. Cannabis policy reform is simply good politics.
According to nationwide polling data compiled in 2021 by Quinnipiac University, 69 percent of adults — including 78 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans — believe that “the use of marijuana should be made legal.”
Separate polling, compiled by Morning Consult in April, further determined that a majority of Democrats, African Americans, and younger voters believe that federal action on cannabis should be among Congress’s “top” or more “important” legislative priorities.
These findings should come as no surprise. In 2020, majorities of voters in both traditionally blue states like New Jersey and traditionally red states like Montana legalized cannabis use by adults at the ballot box. In November, voters in a similar cross-section of states, such as in Maryland and Missouri, will similarly decide on marijuana legalization measures.
Supermajorities of Americans also agree that people with low-level marijuana convictions should have their records expunged and that cannabis-related businesses should “have access to banking services in states where cannabis is legal.”
In short, reforming America’s marijuana laws would galvanize the Democratic base while simultaneously appealing to many Republicans and independents — in a way that few if any other hot-button political issues would.
More importantly, repealing marijuana prohibition would adjust federal law to America’s rapidly changing cultural and legal landscape, where 19 states now legalize marijuana commerce and most others regulate its access for medical purposes.
Finally, ending prohibition would affirm America’s longstanding principles of federalism and Americans’ deep-rooted desires to be free from undue government intrusion into their daily lives.
It’s time for federal lawmakers — and for Democratic leaders in particular — to abandon the failed cannabis policies of the past and to acknowledge this reality.
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.