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Federal Laws Against Pot Are on Borrowed Time

Virtually all Americans oppose strict marijuana laws, meaning change has never been more likely.
June 17, 2021
Federal Laws Against Pot Are on Borrowed Time

In early February 2020, weeks before Joe Biden won the game-changing South Carolina primary, he was asked in an interview about the likelihood of marijuana being legalized any time soon.

Biden went through the various pros and the cons of legalization, and sounded in parts of the short interview more like a veteran of the “Just Say No” drug abuse programs of the 1980s than current legalization supporters who say pot laws have created more problems than they solved.

But then Biden added this nugget: “I think it is at the point where it has to be, basically, legalized.”

Biden’s sense of inevitability is justified: Bills before the House and Senate seem likely to pass in some form or fashion before the 2022 mid-term elections. The numbers have moved into the area where backtracking is no longer possible. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans think that marijuana should be legal for both recreational and medical use, while an additional 31 percent are in favor of medicinal use only. Majorities of every age group except those 75 and older think both uses should be legal. Surprisingly, even 87 percent of Republicans go along with supporting both legal or medicinal only.

In a total of 16 states plus Washington, D.C., it is now legal to light up; 36 states in total have approved medicinal use. Even the legislatures of Texas and Louisiana have passed expansions of medical marijuana use in the last session, and will be signed shortly by their governors.

Aiding in this movement is that law enforcement is now on board: Cops mostly see prohibition of marijuana as an impediment to dealing with more serious crime issues. A national survey of police officers found that 73 percent think that marijuana should not be categorized as a Schedule 1 drug (like heroin and LSD), and 61 percent thought that incarcerating marijuana users was not an effective way to reduce the use of the drug.

There are three bills in the works before Congress, and it will likely be a combination of these that get a vote. The final bills will likely end marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug and also make it available to patients in VA hospitals.

States will have the right to determine how far they want the legalization to go, with marijuana regulated like alcohol; individual cities and counties will likely get a say as well. There will also likely be a federal tax on sales that will be used for health care programs, help for those who may have been unfairly treated by the war on drugs in past decades, and employment programs for those who need them.

Can such a bill get to 60 votes in the Senate in order to surmount filibuster concerns? Ron Wyden, the Democratic senator from Oregon, warned that the GOP remains out of touch on this issue at their peril.

“My Republican colleagues are trying to reconcile some of the views that they’ve long had, which is ‘oh, we don’t think we can we can support these efforts,’ with the fact that their voters are way out in front of them,” Wyden said in a recent interview. “Their voters are saying, ‘look, we’re voting for this. Come around, it’s time to change.’”

When you start counting Senators, finding 10 GOP votes for marijuana legalization is not hard. North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Alabama will have open elections because of Republican retirements, so those retirees (Burr, Portman, Toomey, Blunt, and Shelby) may vote for legalization to keep Democrats from using the issue to win their state’s seat in the general election.

Additionally, Democrats will be targeting senators whose states have already legalized marijuana reform. That list includes senators Susan Collins of Maine, Steve Daines of Montana, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, John Thune and Mike Rounds of South Dakota, and Mike Lee and Mitt Romney of Utah.

Some of these measures already have Republican support: David Joyce, a Republican House member from Ohio, has sponsored a bill that is similar to the Democratic versions already out there.

Joyce is a former county prosecutor, and his district includes some of the wealthy’s suburbs of Cleveland. Trump won this district by about ten points in both 2016 and 2020, and Joyce has been in office since 2013. He voted against impeachment of former president Donald Trump both times.

And his bill, filed May 12, will remove marijuana from the Schedule 1 classification and allow veterans across the country access to medical marijuana. It will get rid of the “outdated approach to cannabis and protect the rights of states across the country.”

“With more than 40 States taking action on this issue, it’s past time for Congress to recognize that continued cannabis prohibition is neither tenable nor the will of the American electorate,” Joyce said in a statement. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get this bill signed into law so that we can enact sensible and meaningful cannabis reform that will improve lives and livelihoods.”

Congressman Joyce’s bill is proof that the times have changed. He is not some civil rights advocate; he is a former prosecutor from the rich, white, old money suburbs of Cleveland.

David Joyce is in step with the broader political landscape, and that why some marijuana legalization will pass Congress within a year. Both sides of the aisle want to own local control issues, to make the public think they control their lives not the feds, and marijuana reform falls into that spot regardless of race or income or party affiliation. That, more than anything else, will make a marijuana legalization legislation very difficult to oppose right now.

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.