Progressives Vow to Push Biden on Cannabis

This year, even as polls show more support for cannabis, Democrats are merely calling for decriminalization; not outright legalization.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking at a podium Source: Shutterstock

Even as Democrats are unified in the party’s attempt to oust President Donald Trump, some progressives are vowing to ramp up pressure on former Vice President Joe Biden for what many see as his outdated stance on cannabis.

Last week the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee was able to corral powerful Democrats into reversing the party’s historic platform from 2016 that laid a pathway to legalize marijuana. This year, even as polls show more support for cannabis, Democrats are merely calling for decriminalization; not outright legalization.

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That’s why many progressives say this issue isn’t over yet, even in this presidential election year.

“I think it just goes to show how the progressive movement, you know, we continue to be at the forefront of the party and making sure that the ideas and, frankly, the rights and the issues that we’re going to be contending with the next generation, we start to address right now,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told Wikileaf. “I mean, that’s literally why we exist.”

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It’s not just more well-known progressives like Ocasio-Cortez. Even many Democratic Senate and House candidates are now rallying behind cannabis legalization and wondering why the party isn’t.

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“I think there’s broad support both for decriminalization as well as legalization of cannabis in the United States. When you look at polling state by state, it’s not just popular with Democratic voters; it has broad support to Republican voters, libertarian voters,” Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), who is running for Senate, told Wikileaf. “So in New Mexico across the board and across the country, I think there’s strong support.”

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Only a select number of Democrats are allowed to vote on the party platform ahead of the convention where the party will still have to officially endorse the platform, which is why some members are visibly upset that the party leaders endorsed what many say is a lukewarm cannabis policy.  

“If I had a vote, then I would have cast a vote for a broader look. That’s being consistent,” an animated Lujan said. “Many of us that are here that are Democratic House members, U.S. senators, Democratic governors across the country, mayors up and down, and across the gamut of support, not just medical marijuana legalization; recreational use.”

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Lujan is optimistic lawmakers on Capitol Hill can still have the final say on the issue, even if Biden – a longtime teetotaler after witnessing substance abuse first hand in his family – is in the Oval Office at the start of next year.  

“I think that if there was a vote on the House floor and the Senate floor…we would not only see Democrats voting for this, but you would also get Republican votes as well,” Lujan said. “What we should do as a legislative branch of government is get some bills signed and send them to the president and get this stuff passed.”

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Pro-cannabis Republicans are also perplexed by Democrat’s about face on such a popular issue.  

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“I’m trying to get my party to move forward. I don’t know why the Democrats are moving backwards,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said.

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That’s why Ocasio-Cortez and others aren’t backing down.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “This is just an acknowledgement of the fact that it’s not good enough to just think that we can pull a lever for any Democrat and expect these issues to happen. That’s why the nexus of change relies on the people and advocates and activist movements.”

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Ocasio-Cortez says Biden is from the more conservative wing of the party, and she says he’s not alone. In her home state of New York, she’s witnessed older Democratic leaders stall on legalization efforts, even after pledging to legalize marijuana on the campaign trail.

“[Gov.] Andrew Cuomo was like this in terms of legalization in New York,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Where you could present all the evidence in the world, you could have all the popular support in the world, and some of this just comes down to individual personality.”

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Still, Ocasio-Cortez is a fighter, and her personality doesn’t lend itself to backing down from the old guard. She says the public is on the side of her and other progressives who are demanding wholesale change to drug laws.

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“That’s the reality and it’s on us to push,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We have to make sure that we continue to advocate for what people on the ground and everyday people want.”

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Other rank and file Democrats agree, including one of the more active members in the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.).

“As a member of the U.S. Congress, my policy is to strongly and firmly advocate for justice reform when it comes to, you know, criminalization of drugs,” Correa told Wikileaf. “I’m totally in favor and want to keep fighting for the legalization of cannabis at the federal level. I did it in the state. Now we’re going to work at the federal level.”

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Correa is more conflicted than Ocasio-Cortez though. He says he thinks the party’s leaders – from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Biden – are still more progressive on cannabis than Trump, even if the party decided to go for decriminalization and not legalization this year.

“I don’t think it’s a setback,” Correa said, before catching himself and shouting. “You know, I stand corrected: I hope the advocates think they ‘re in trouble, because that’ll light a fire under them to push harder!”

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