Cannabis legalization more popular than ever despite roadblocks

The country as a whole has made up its mind about cannabis: the broad consensus is that it should be legal at the federal level. Prohibitionists in Congress, however, are still mucking up the works. While Democrats generally favor legalization and Republicans generally oppose it, both support and opposition are bipartisan, an unusual situation in today’s highly polarized Washington. While it seems likely that pot will be legalized sometime in the coming few years, the outlook remains murky, especially in terms of the timing. Murkier still is the reasoning—if that’s what you can call it—of the prohibitionists in Congress. The reasons they give for their continued censoriousness make less sense with each passing day.

It’s been more than eight years since the states of Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize weed for adult use. Since then, 14 more states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized it, and several other states have enacted medical-marijuana programs. More states are expected to legalize this year. Pot is now fully illegal in only seven states, and a few of those have decriminalized cannabis.

Also in that time, public opinion has shifted markedly. In 2012, nationwide polls showed that support for legalization was favored by about half the country. This past April, a major Pew Research survey found that more than 90% of Americans think pot should be legal in some form: either for medical use or for adult use. That poll, and many others, show that support for full federal legalization comes in at somewhere between 60 and 70%.

Meanwhile, the tide is turning in Washington, albeit slowly. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he intends to bring legalization to a vote. The SAFE Banking Act, which would enable banks to do business with cannabis companies even if the plant remains federally illegal, seems likely to pass.

As the consensus to legalize solidifies, the opinions of prohibitionists, especially the lawmakers among them, seem increasingly ludicrous. Last week, Politico’s Natalie Fertig asked several Republican senators who represent states where weed is legal in some form what they thought about federal legalization, and the answers were downright puzzling.

This year, medical pot was made legal in Alabama, but that means little to Richard Shelby, the state’s Republican senator. “I think they can do other narcotics and things to relieve people’s pain and suffering,” he told Fertig. 

“They can do other narcotics” is an interesting argument in favor of keeping pot illegal, but Shelby likely doesn’t care how it comes off: he has announced that he’s leaving the Senate once his current term is up next year. When Fertig asked him how he squares his stance with the fact that Alabamans overwhelmingly support medical pot, he replied: “I don’t know. You got to have some principle, yourself.” A man of principle, this man who was a Democrat his whole life until the very day after Republicans won a big majority in Congress in 1994, whereupon he switched parties.

Steve Daines, Republican senator from Montana, told Fertig he continues to oppose legalization, but is all for the SAFE Banking Act, of which he is the lead sponsor. His explanation for this seemingly contradictory stance: “The people in Montana decided they want to have it legal in our state, and that’s why I support the SAFE Banking Act as well—it’s the right thing to do—but I don’t support federal legalization.”

Other Republicans gave similar answers. Meanwhile, the Democrats who oppose legalization seem generally more open to debating the question, and might yet come around. They include Jon Tester of Montana and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, both of whom favor the SAFE Act, medical pot and pretty much everything short of full legalization.

Thanks to Democrats like them and others including the notoriously Republican-friendly Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Schumer will be forced to find as many as 10 Republicans to sign on to a legalization bill, which Fertig’s reporting indicates will be a real challenge. This is your brain on bipartisanship.

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