Eight in 10 Democrats Want Marijuana Legalization. Why Doesn’t the Party?

    Seventy-eight percent of Democrat voters want it. Nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates wanted it. Ten Democrat-run states and the Democrat-run District of Colombia already have it. But Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his party hierarchy have said no, once again, to federal marijuana legalization.

    On July 27, the Democratic National Committee voted 106-50 against a legalization amendment to the party’s official 2020 policy platform. This makes official what advocates feared after Biden’s criminal justice reform task force recently rejected legalization in its policy recommendations—conveniently so for Biden, when most of the individual committee members had previously expressed support, as Marijuana Moment reported.

    The party’s newly approved draft platform says Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it at the federal level. It supports legalizing medical marijuana, and allowing states to decide their own marijuana laws without federal meddling. All past criminal convictions for marijuana use (presumably only for federal charges) would be automatically expunged.

    The platform reflects the personal views of Biden, rather than those of almost eight in 10 Democrat or Democrat-leaning members of the public, according to a November 2019 Pew survey. (Even 55 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters favor legalization.) A platform is also always a result of trade-offs between different party interests.

    “The platform committee holds hearings around the nation, in person and online, to hear from the public,” wrote Marjorie Hershey, a Political Science professor at Indiana University. “In reality, those who testify are almost always leaders of interest groups. The party’s presidential nominee will also have great influence over its contents.”

    “Writers of party platforms,” she continued, “must combine the … values that brought supporters to the party with the specifics desired by the party’s allied interest groups as the price of their loyalty.”

    Biden, as the DNC vote indicated, is far from alone among his party’s upper ranks. There’s another recent example of party opposition to legalization, for which Biden was not responsible.

    Last year, the first-ever federal marijuana legalization bill was approved by a Congressional committee. Called the MORE Act, it includes legalizing marijuana use and various provisions to repair drug-war injustices, especially for Black and Brown people. But since successfully passing the Judiciary Committee in November 2019, it has not been brought to a full vote in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

    Why not? The only reasonable conclusion is that a majority of the nation’s elected Democrats in federal office do not support legalization, or at least don’t think it’s important enough to prioritize.  

    To return to the details of the DNC’s marijuana platform, let’s recall where we are now. Currently, 11 states and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana for adult use. A total of 33 states have legalized for medical use. At the federal level, it remains a Schedule I substance, meaning it is illegal for any use, even medical. But generally, the Obama and Trump administrations have not stopped state governments that have legalized.

    It’s a very mixed picture.

    The DNC platform suggests that a President Biden would seek to reduce arrests and incarceration for marijuana possession by decriminalizing it. Many states and cities have already pursued this approach, with some success.

    New York City saw a 90 percent drop in marijuana arrests after the NYPD implemented decriminalization. Most people caught with small amounts of marijuana there are now given a summons with a fine, not arrested. However, Black and Latinx residents accounted for 80 percent of all NYC summonses issued the first year after the policy change. 

    Nationwide, the ACLU has found that decriminalization, compared to full legalization, has been less effective in reducing Black marijuana arrest rates. (Although even states with full legalization still have disproportionate Black arrest rates, with the disparity getting worse in some counties after legalization.)

    Overall, decriminalization reduces marijuana arrests, legalization reduces them even more, but ending racial disparities is not so simple—even if total Black arrest numbers are reduced more by legalization. Biden’s decriminalization plan in no sense goes far enough.

    This also raises questions about his plan to automatically expunge all convictions for marijuana use, which is important in itself, even if it should also be extended to people with convictions for selling cannabis. Since Biden wouldn’t be legalizing marijuana, there would likely be many new marijuana-use arrests and convictions—including for possession of larger quantities—after he took office.

    So would he just issue one blanket expungement from the start, automatically wiping all future convictions? Or would he pass multiple executive orders to expunge additional marijuana convictions since the last time he did so? If you believe that no one should have to live with the consequences—in employment, education, housing and other terms—of a cannabis conviction, why would you not end the pursuit of new convictions?

    When it comes to medical marijuana, a President Biden would reschedule cannabis federally, moving it to at least the less restrictive Schedule II category, to allow doctors to legally prescribe it to patients. This would definitely be an improvement on where we are now. But access would still be tightly limited to patients with approved medical conditions and those who can afford to see a doctor.

    The ultimate outcomes of Biden’s federal marijuana policy would probably be that fewer people would be arrested for it, but some still would; that more people would get marijuana legally with a doctor’s note, but not all who need it; and that both arrests and medical access would continue to discriminate on racial and economic lines. 

    It’s a very mixed picture. States with legal marijuana could continue with business as usual without fear of the feds kicking down the door, and more states would probably join them. 

    Of course, the importance of a party platform can be overstated. No elected Democrat is bound to follow its policies, and political concerns can always trump the document. A President Joe Biden could have an epiphany while in office and support legalization after all. Nothing about his history or the DNC vote suggests that he will.


    Photo by Digital Aesthetica via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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