Progressives are upset with House Democratic leaders for putting election year politics over efforts to legalize marijuana. They argue it’s not a ‘drug’ issue, but a racial and criminal justice one whose time has come.  Earlier this month House Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) pulled a scheduled vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act (the MORE Act). The floor vote would have been historic, because neither chamber of Congress has voted on a cannabis decriminalization bill since marijuana was dubbed a controlled substance in the seventies. Progressives aren’t happy. “I personally think it was a mistake. I disagree with it, and I just think it is indicative of how, you know, when it comes to issues of racial justice, delay is a big, persistent issue that we consistently have to deal with,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told WikiLeaf. “And so it's incredibly disappointing.”

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Delayed Racial Justice

The MORE Act goes beyond purely decriminalizing marijuana federally. It also attempts to level the playing field for minorities by using proceeds from a 5% federal tax (which the legislation would stamp on all cannabis products) to reinvest in the communities that have been hurt most by the decades long war on ‘drugs.’ That means the economic implications of the legislation are far reaching. Conversely, the economic and societal implications of inaction are even more far reaching. “Every day that goes by that we kick this can down the road is a day that a dad is still in jail without his kids. It's a day that, even if you're not in jail, that you continue to be haunted, denied, you know, job opportunities, because of things that are on your record that shouldn't be on your record,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Democratic Divisions

This is an election year, and Democratic leaders initially caved to pressure from the left and hastily decided to bring the bill up in September. But once they made that announcement in August, moderate Democrats – or at least suburban Democrats – got nervous, so party leaders embarrassingly reversed themselves. Many Democrats from districts President Donald Trump won in 2016 were the cause of the kerfuffle, though many say their problem wasn’t with the marijuana bill itself. It was timing, they claim.  They argue it felt tone deaf to be voting on marijuana decriminalization even as many of their constituents are still unemployed, underemployed, or grieving the loss of a loved one from the pandemic (or a combination of those factors for far too many). “My top priority is…trying to get our stimulus package passed. That’s the number one issue back in my district,” freshman Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY) told Wikileaf. “There’s still time after the election.” Trump won Brindisi’s upstate New York district by a whopping 15 points last time.

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Suburban Influence and Shifting Priorities

Party leaders deflect criticisms from the likes of Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives. They’re now singing the tune of their newly replenished ranks of suburban Democrats - many of whom are first term, quasi-vulnerable freshmen. That’s why the party quickly pivoted from marijuana last week to a new, trimmed down $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package this week. Once it passes, lawmakers are scheduled to be on the campaign trail (or zoom trail?) until after the election. But leaders argue this decision wasn’t about politics. They say legalizing cannabis remains a priority. “That’s right. It’s all about what we’re fighting for,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), the vice chairwoman of the Democratic Caucus, told Wikileaf. “We are going to make sure that we are fighting for racial justice, economic justice, and social justice.” Clark says her offices – two of which are located in her state which already legalized recreational marijuana – aren’t getting many calls about cannabis. She says the calls are mostly coming from those struggling to find affordable childcare during the pandemic, voter access issues, food needs, etc. 

Prudent Choice or Inevitable Failure?

Abortion access and Obamacare calls have ramped up after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. That’s especially because her likely ultra-conservative replacement, Amy Coney Barrett, is now slated for a speedy confirmation under Senate Republican who are banking on Barrett voting to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, which comes before the Court just after the election. Those issues all resonate with suburban voters.  That’s why even the MORE Act’s lead sponsor in the House of Representatives isn’t worried party leaders pulled his own bill off the floor.   “I think they made the prudent choice, because they weren’t sure of the votes,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) told Wikileaf. Nadler’s also the chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Even so, he’s not a whip (or vote counter) thus his vote counting skills seem off, hence he offered this lukewarm prediction when asked if he was confident his bill would pass after the election. “I think so. We’ll see,” Nadler said. “I don't see a practical difference between doing it now and doing it a month from now.”

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Democratic Leaders Blurry Lenses

Nadler’s white, which may be why he’s so casual in discussing decriminalization. But for many Black and Brown lawmakers, there’s no time to waste. Many argue the unrest on America’s streets throughout the summer should have been a wakeup call for Democratic leaders like Nadler, Leader Hoyer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, because it should now be evident that every issue before Congress is a racial justice issue. “I think that against the backdrop of this national reckoning on racial injustice this is a time for everything from repealing [restrictions on abortions] – that's a racial justice issue – to canceling student debt, when black students borrow and default more than anyone else, because our families have been, you know, legislatively denied the opportunity to build generational wealth because of practices like redlining which persist,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) told Wikileaf. “So we have to view every issue through a racial justice lens.”  And Pressley – along with her fellow Squad member Ocasio-Cortez and many others – are vowing not to give up this fight to decriminalize and prioritize marijuana legalization, even if it means being a thorn in the side of their own Democratic Party leaders. “Every lever, every tool that's available to us, I'm looking to exact. At the end of the day, this is about political will,” Pressley said. “And it's about the vigilance of our movement, the sustainability of our movement, because that's how all change happens.”