Budget deal is latest sign of Democrats’ empty weed promises

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That wasn’t the only weed provision left on the cutting room floor.

The spending bill also failed to protect state-regulated recreational cannabis markets, nor did it expand medical marijuana research or protect veterans who use cannabis — two issues with widespread bipartisan backing.

“I’m very frustrated and really disappointed,” said Rep. Lou Correa
(D-Calif.), a champion of cannabis policy changes. “Polling in this country is off the charts that people want to normalize the use of cannabis … So what’s the hang up?”

More weed woes

It’s just the latest example of Democrats’ inability to accomplish meaningful change on cannabis policy when it is seemingly within their grasp. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats removed language from the National Defense Authorization Act that would have made it easier for the industry to access banking services. That legislation has twice cleared the House with huge majorities, including more than 100 Republicans, but has made no progress in the Senate.

Democrats have been locked in an internal debate about the correct approach to overhauling federal cannabis policies. Schumer and other key senators have resisted piecemeal changes, insisting that any cannabis legislation address broader criminal justice reforms, even though there’s little evidence that they can corral 60 votes for a major package.

Many advocates saw supporting D.C.’s choice to legalize as an easy step toward the criminal justice reform that Schumer champions.

“It’s hard to have faith in congressional leadership on comprehensive reform when they can’t even commit to allowing for local reform that, in theory, should be an easy lift,” said Queen Adesuyi, senior manager for national policy at Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that lobbies for the decriminalization of all drugs.

Democrats insist they still plan to make big changes to federal cannabis policy in this Congress’ remaining nine months. Schumer, Sen. Cory Booker
(D-N.J.) and Sen. Ron Wyden
(D-Ore.) released draft legislation to federally decriminalize and regulate marijuana last summer, but the formal bill has yet to materialize. Schumer said last month that he hopes to introduce it in April, though time is running out for passing such a substantial bill before the end of 2022.

“The path for marijuana legislation has always faced hurdles, but the discussion around marijuana legalization has advanced further in 15 months than over the last decade because of Democratic leadership,” Schumer said in a statement to POLITICO on Friday.

Broader policy failures

The lack of progress on cannabis policy is illustrative of the larger failures of Democrats to follow through on their campaign promises — from immigration reform to President Joe Biden’s social spending bill. In the end, additional pandemic aid was even removed from the 2022 budget, due to squabbling among House Democrats over how to pay for it.

When confronted with these failures, Democrats point to the many hurdles they’ve faced since taking office, including the war in Ukraine and a single-vote majority in the Senate.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer
(D-Ore.), a longtime champion of marijuana legalization, called the behind-the-scenes budget negotiations a “collapse” of the entire appropriations process, complaining that back room deliberations give individual lawmakers too much veto power over small provisions. A leadership source, meanwhile, told POLITICO that Republican leadership drew a line on legacy riders, meaning that pushing for removal on the prohibition on D.C. sales — known as the Harris Rider — could have been a poison pill for the budget bill.

But ultimately, the buck stops with Democrats, who have slim majorities in both chambers.

“Probably the most important power of the majority leader is the ability to put bills on the floor,” Schumer told POLITICO in April 2021, when he announced his plan to federally decriminalize cannabis.

John Hudak, an expert in cannabis policy at the Brookings Institution, argues that no legislator is going to vote against the federal budget because it removes the Harris Rider, which was originally introduced by Rep. Andy Harris
(R-Md.).

“I can guarantee you,” Hudak said, “If Chuck Schumer wanted the Harris Rider removed, the Harris Rider would be removed.”

Ultimately, Hudak said, Democrats can’t be blamed for not getting comprehensive reform across the finish line — especially when they have such a narrow margin in the Senate. But their inability to pass smaller provisions shows the lengths to which leadership is willing to fight for cannabis policy.

In fact, many dumbfounded advocates and frustrated pro-cannabis lawmakers pointed on Wednesday to the broad support among voters for cannabis legalization. Eighteen states, the District of Columbia and three territories legalized recreational marijuana in the last decade. Two-thirds of American voters support legalization — including half of Republican voters and 83 percent of Democrats.

Why that isn’t translating into cannabis policy on Capitol Hill, however, isn’t clear.

“You give us both chambers, [you] give us the president — and [we’ll give you] cannabis,” Correa said Wednesday, adding that Democrats made similar promises in 2020 on immigration policy, which also has not yet received its day in Congress. “What happened?”

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