Festive Flower

Legal pot and 4/20 celebrations have gone from fringe to the Senate floor

When events occur in increments, even fast increments, it’s sometimes a challenge to step back and appreciate them.

Such is the case with the movement to legalize cannabis nationwide, which for so many decades was considered to be a lost cause, but started making huge gains about 15 years ago. Suddenly, legalization is almost a foregone conclusion.

But in the flurry of news, one might be prone to overlook just how remarkable it was last week when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stood on the floor of the Upper Chamber and said he was speaking on the “very unofficial American holiday” of 4/20. He said he hoped weed would be legalized at the federal level by next year’s 4/20.

Schumer never was a big drug warrior, but he opposed federal adult-use legalization until just a few years ago, and, more to the point, he is perhaps the ultimate mainstream inside-the-beltway, Democratic Party stiff. It was almost astonishing to see him stand on the Senate floor hailing 4/20 as an “American holiday,” unofficial or not.

After his speech, Schumer repeated his sentiments on Twitter and said he’s working on a legalization bill in league with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

The House already passed the MORE Act, which would both legalize adult use at the federal level and begin the process of expunging federal marijuana convictions from the criminal records of nonviolent offenders. Schumer delivered his speech on the same day the House passed the SAFE Banking Act, which allows banks to do business with cannabis companies without worrying about the legal liabilities.

Also that day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki noted during a news conference that Biden had evolved yet further from his former stance as a staunch drug warrior, declaring that he now explicitly supports states’ rights to legalize adult-use cannabis. That’s not full-throated support for legalization, but it is an indication that if Congress were to vote to legalize, there’s hope he might sign the bill.

His current stance, which he announced during his campaign, is that he favors federal decriminalization and criminal expungement, but not full federal legalization.

Paired with momentum in states that have legalized pot—including New York and New Mexico, which legalized recreational weed in the past few weeks—it might seem like the inevitable is bound to happen this year. But that will happen only if one of two fairly unlikely things comes to be: If the Senate filibuster is lifted, or if enough Republicans are drafted into the pro-legalization column.

Lifting the filibuster is under consideration for reasons that have nothing to do with weed, like climate change legislation and gun reform. But if the filibuster goes away, legalization will likely sail through the Senate, since only a majority vote is needed.

With the filibuster in place, legalization will be fought on the margins, coming down to the handful of Republicans who might be persuaded to favor it versus the handful of Democrats who might vote against it.

Some lobbyists and other observers think it’s possible enough libertarian-minded Republican senators could be persuaded. Sen. Mike Lee of Arizona is a prime target on that front.

But then there are the Democrats, mainly of the “blue dog” type, who might not go for it.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia—often referred to as a closet Republican—is one of them. Another is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who set eyes to rolling last week when she told Politico she opposed legalization because “we’re in the middle of an opioid epidemic, and the research that I’ve seen suggests that that is a way that more people get into drugs.”

She did not cite the particular research she was referring to, but most studies over the past several decades have concluded that the notion of pot as a “gateway drug” is a load of nonsense. It’s a nonsense notion that persists nonetheless, leaving uncertain the question of whether pot will be federally legal by its next “unofficial American holiday” on 4/20 next year.

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