.An Odd Space: These Democrats oppose legalization


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week unveiled his timeline for debating a bill to legalize cannabis. His efforts, along with those of Democrat co-sponsors Sen. Cory Booker, of N.J., and Sen. Ron Wyden, of Ore., appear to be increasingly serious, despite the fact that the bill doesn’t have much chance of passing this session.

Republicans are mostly to blame for this, but there is a group of Democrats who are at least as responsible. That set includes some of the same people who have held up other, far-more-urgent legislation, such as action on climate change. Sen. Joe Manchin, of W.Va., who has turned himself into the most powerful figure in the evenly split Senate by obstructing his own party’s bills and often siding with Republicans, is against legalization. So are Sens. Maggie Hassan, of N.H., who is running for re-election, and Jeanne Shaheen, also of N.H.

Shaheen issued perhaps the most ludicrous quote of last week as it pertains to this issue when she told Bloomberg Government that she disfavors legalization because she’s “not interested in seeing another way for people to misuse illegal substances.”

It feels ridiculous to type this out, but: If we make something legal, it’s no longer illegal. That’s sort of the point.

Shaheen seems to occupy that space in the Democratic Party, populated mainly by its older members, who want to appear “enlightened” on the issue, but who can’t quite achieve the full Satori of legalization. Manchin, President Biden and several others share this odd space, where the most frightening thing in the world to them is that they might be perceived as going “too far” on cannabis and some other issues, like climate change.

Shaheen actually has a fairly decent record on cannabis: in 2018, she vehemently opposed former Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plans to crack down on the legal-weed business by rescinding Department of Justice rules from the Obama administration that forbade such actions. She accused Sessions of intending to “waste taxpayer dollars to pursue legal, non-lethal drug use and legally operating small businesses.”

But she stops short of wanting the federal government to recognize those small businesses as “legally operating.” According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Shaheen has supported or voted for a slew of pro-cannabis measures, including the SAFE Banking Act, which would protect banks from liability for dealing with legal-cannabis companies; various programs for veterans who use cannabis as medicine; and protecting medical-pot providers from prosecution. But, as Biden has done in the past, she has also characterized pot as a “gateway drug” and even said it is partly responsible for the opioid crisis.

Her New Hampshire colleague, Hassan, opposes legalization for some of the same reasons, despite her public declaration that she used cannabis in the past. As her state’s former governor, she vowed in 2014 to veto any legalization bill that hit her desk. Explaining her seeming hypocrisy on the issue, she said that “things are different now” than they were when she “tried” weed in her youth. Cannabis, she said, “is much more potent.”

Manchin doesn’t seem to really have any kind of ideology and seems driven mainly by obstructing Biden and blocking any legislation Democrats might push that is opposed by a majority of Republicans, especially by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He generally seems loath to even talk about weed, but when he does, he, too, goes with the roundly discredited “gateway drug” theory. Opioid users, he has said, have told him that they started with weed. Never mind that only a minuscule number of people who use cannabis ever even try hard drugs, much less become addicted to them.

Thanks to these Democrats, and the filibuster rule—which they also oppose killing—legalization has almost zero chance of passing this session. The filibuster rule requires 60 votes for passage, and even with the Republicans who are on board, that number is elusive given the obstruction on the Democratic side.

But Schumer, Booker and Wyden are going full bore. Schumer said the bill will be introduced in April, and he hopes to have a vote by the end of the year. “As majority leader, I can set priorities,” he said last week. “This is a priority for me.”

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