Ahead of House vote – why can’t the US bring itself to legalise marijuana?

Gulf continues to grow between federal prohibition and state-led legalisation

John Bowden
Thursday 31 March 2022 02:24 BST
Chuck Schumer backs marijuana legalisation on Senate floor

The US Congress is set to take another step on the long road towards the legalisation of marijuana this week but remains far behind the pace of state governments around the country.

The House of Representatives is set to vote on a bill that would decriminalise marijuana possession at the federal level, a step that would simultaneously be a jolt in the arm of the legal pot industry while remaining far behind the industry’s goal for total legalisation.

Under federal law, marijuana possession is treated as a schedule 1 substance, the same as heroin, ecstasy and other illicit drugs. Despite its use being recommended by a growing number of physicians for medical use to treat conditions like persistent inflammation, anxiety and sleep issues, the federal government does not recognise any medical uses for the plant.

“Marijuana is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision,” reads the Drug Enforcement Administration’s website.

That definition flies in the face of reality in nearly every state in the union. Just a handful of states have laws still on the books making the substance fully illegal for both recreational and medical use; most states allow at least medical usage, and many have significantly reduced punishments for personal non-medical possession.

In many states, as well as Washington DC, it remains very easy to obtain a medical use licence for usage of the substance on a wide range of issues. Virginia, where many lawmakers, federal employees and congressional staffers reside, just made possession of up to one ounce of marijuana legal for adults in 2021.

More states are changing their laws every year, even while Congress remains placid on the issue and advocates have seen minimal success on the federal legalisation front. It is worth asking, now, why the discrepancy between state and federal laws on the issue is so great.

Part of that discrepancy is the result of Congress’s far larger public platform and the volatility of its membership base thanks to the entire House and one-third of the Senate being up for election every two years, coupled with the average age of DC lawmakers.

Leadership in both parties, long some of the more resistant to such legislation, consists of the party’s oldest members and as a result views on drug policy reform are far more conservative than are the views of some rank-and-file members. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi support the latest push for decriminalisation, but other leaders like former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid strongly opposed such efforts.

One example of this dynamic can be found in the case of Diane Feinstein, California’s senior senator, who fought back a progressive primary challenge in 2018 after reversing her stance on the issue and announcing that she opposed the federal government cracking down on marijuana users and dispensaries that follow state law.

But lawmakers on Capitol Hill aren’t the only ones who have opposed efforts to deschedule, decriminalise or legalise the drug in Washington. The other main reason for inaction at the federal level can be found at 1700 Pennsylvania Ave., where marijuana advocates have failed to see a single president show anything much more than outright hostility towards their cause.

Even as recreational use has exploded across the country and blue states have been some of the pioneering municipalities where drug policy reform is being tried, Democratic presidents have failed to take up the issue as a serious cause at the national level. Joe Biden is the latest example of this, and it remains unclear if he would even sign Mr Schumer’s latest Democrat-led push to decriminalise the drug if it reached his desk.

His predecessor as the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, was no better: Mr Obama’s administration fiercely opposed legalisation of recreational use as a matter of public policy, and despite an early 2009 claim that his administration would stop cracking down on users in areas where the drug was legal, that was not the case. The Justice Department would go on to raid dozens, if not hundreds, of dispensaries throughout his eight years in office.

Pot advocates fare the same under Republican-led administrations. Donald Trump was famously anti-drug, and upon taking office saw his Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions take a much more hardline stance than even the Obama administration against marijuana distribution in localities where it was legalised.

The latest push for decriminalisation has by far the highest chance of success of any effort to decriminalise the drug at the federal level in years, but it remains unclear if the bill will even make it to Joe Biden’s desk thanks to a sharply-divided 50-50 Senate and already-voiced public concerns from Republicans about aspects of the bill that would establish a tax on marijuana sales and use the proceeds to help communities hurt by the war on drugs.

And even if this particular iteration of legalisation efforts fails, advocates say their time is coming.

“At the beginning I was laughed at with a bill like this,” Sen Cory Booker noted in an interview with Bloomberg Government. “And now we’re getting closer and closer.”

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