“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” – John F. Kennedy
If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that anything is possible. It was just over six months ago that Americans were trying to get into the groove of a brand-spanking-new year, only to have it ripped away in no time flat by some lung-thirsty virus. Since then, the nation has experienced lockdowns, shutdowns, borderline economic collapse, the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, and more than 150,000 deaths. And just when it seemed the worst of it was over, the hits keep on coming. A report from the Congressional Budget Office suggests that it could be a decade before the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some states are now looking to legal marijuana to help speed it along. According to federal lawmakers, it’s an ethos that could also be embraced by the U.S. government at the turn of 2021. But how it all shakes out really depends on the outcome of the upcoming November election.
It’s not as though the legalization of marijuana is some bold, new idea that still needs to be carefully assessed in the interest of keeping Americans safe and healthy. More than half the nation has legalized the leaf for recreational and medicinal use. It’s an “experiment,” as the Obama Administration use to refer to it, that has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs, revived local economies and contributed billions of dollars in tax revenue. What’s more is legal states haven’t had to sell their souls to the Devil in exchange. There haven’t been any reported social casualties due to legalization – no increases in youth consumption, addiction rates have not skyrocketed, and stoned driving is no more a concern than it’s always been. Even conservative lawmakers who were hellbent against legalization in the very beginning eventually realized there was nothing to be afraid of. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper admitted on more than one occasion that he would have nixed the cannabis trade right out of the gate. But after years of watching a taxed and regulated system in action, he had a change of heart.
“Certainly the worst things that we had great fear about – spikes in consumption, kids, people driving while high — we haven’t seen any of that,” Hickenlooper said in a 2018 exit interview with Rolling Stone. “We were very worried that by legalizing, we were making this more somehow more psychologically available to kids. We haven’t seen that. If anything, we’ve seen less drug dealers.”
However, at the federal level, lawmakers have not been so eager to make marijuana part of the country’s legitimate commerce. Even though the Democratic-controlled House has done its best to push through a couple of cannabis-related reforms in the past few years (SAFE Banking Act, MORE Act), Republican domination in the Senate has made it virtually impossible to make the change. A lot of this has to do with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The gatekeeper to the upper chamber maintains that he has no interest in siding in favor of legal weed. “I do not have any plans to endorse the legalization of marijuana,” he told reporters in 2018 after spearheading legislation to legalize industrial hemp. Since that comment, McConnell has stayed true to his word. Not a single piece of cannabis legislation has been discussed in the Senate.
But all of that stands to change in the upcoming election.
The Democrats have a fighting shot this November at taking control of Congress. All they have to do is secure three seats to win the Senate — four if President Trump is reelected. If that happens, the pro-pot attitude that has been making history in the lower chamber since 2016 would be extended to both Houses. It would mean that marijuana-related legislation would no longer be held in political purgatory, and we’d start to see it making significant strides on Capitol Hill.
The only problem is both presidential candidates are not exactly champing at the bit to make weed legal.
President Trump hasn’t given any indication that he’s prepared to sign a bill legalizing marijuana at the federal level. The closest he’s come was in 2018 when asked whether he would sign a then newly passed bill (SAFE Act) giving banks the freedom to do business with the cannabis industry.
“I probably will end up supporting that, yes,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean President Trump is in favor of establishing a taxed and regulated cannabis market. In fact, it appears that he’s mostly against it. Although the President has said that he’s all about allowing states the freedom to develop their own pot laws, he still thinks marijuana is contributing to the dumbing down of America. Earlier this year, in a secretly taped video released by PBS News Hour, Trump can be heard saying that cannabis causes people “to lose IQ points” and that it causes “an IQ problem.” In typical Trump fashion, his statements were made in spite of federal data showing no “casual relationship between marijuana use and IQ loss.”
But wait, just because Trump ignores science doesn’t mean he wouldn’t legalize marijuana in the interest of making America great again. Only it probably does. In a February interview with Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS-TV, Trump’s Director of Strategic Communications, Marc Lotter, said the president really isn’t interested in changing the federal cannabis laws. “I think the president is looking at this from a standpoint of a parent—a parent of a young person—to make sure we keep our kids away from drugs,” he said. “They need to be kept illegal. That is the federal policy.”
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden isn’t any more progressive on the issue. In a new list of policy recommendations published by a task force established by Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, it suggests the eventual decriminalization of marijuana, but no legalization. Biden, who earlier this year called cannabis a “gateway drug” and later walked back on the statement, just cannot wrap his head around cannabis users having the same freedom as those who consume alcohol. Instead, the Biden-Sanders report says, “Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level.” The proposal also suggests Democratic control would give way to a federal government more open to medical marijuana, while still allowing states to legalize for recreational use as they see fit.
At face value, Biden’s proposal could be seen as a substantial victory for America. Yet, cannabis advocates are less than impressed with it. They claim this toe-in-the-water approach would only serve the pharmaceutical industry, hindering the kind of change necessary to eliminate racial atrocities that have led to organized movements like Black Lives Matter. It “would restrict adults’ ability to legally access the substance to those with a doctor’s prescription only and would continue to maintain criminal penalties for anyone who possesses the substance to absent such authorization,” wrote Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in a piece for the Hill. Furthermore, he continued, “black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana crime than white Americans despite using cannabis at similar rates. In many instances, decriminalization perpetuates this reality.”
The decriminalization of marijuana would also prevent the nation from reaping the much-needed economic benefits of a taxed and regulated market. Some of the latest data shows that federal cannabis legalization would produce more than 1.6 million jobs across the country and contribute around $129 billion to U.S. tax coffers. It’s the reason New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who has been trying to get a recreational marijuana law on the books since taking office in 2016, wants to get on with it already. He told the Jim Kerr Rock & Roll Morning Show a few weeks ago that legal weed for adult use is one sure-fire way to help the state recover economically from the coronavirus while also making strides toward racial justice. “It’s a job creator, it’s a tax revenue raiser, it checks a lot of boxes. I hope we’ll get there sooner than later,” Murphy said.
Many states, like Indiana and Kentucky, flat out refuse to change their marijuana laws until Uncle Sam does it first. One Democratic lawmaker says apprehensive jurisdictions will get the reassurance they need to move forward in 2021 as long as the Democrats win the Senate. On a recent episode of the Young Turks Podcast, Senator Ed Market of Massachusetts said Democrats would move swiftly on marijuana reform next year if all goes well. “We’ll have the majority of the votes in the United States Senate,” Markey explained. “I think we’ll have votes to just move it.”
But then again, they might not.
The Democratic National Committee came out this week rejecting an amendment to make marijuana legalization a plank on the party’s platform. Democrats, presumably under Biden’s influence, are standing down on taxing and regulating marijuana nationwide and moving full speed ahead policies that eliminate the criminal penalties associated with low level pot possession. It would be a more pot-friendly America than it is now, but it would still be far from legal.
Nevertheless, the American population is on board with full blown legalization. The latest Gallup poll shows that 65 percent of the nation now believes cannabis should be handled similar to alcohol. We could see those numbers increasing in the coming months as more Americans out-of-work due to COVID-19 struggle to find gainful employment, and as second waves of the virus threaten to close down parts of the country again. By all accounts, millions of new jobs in the cannabis industry would allow more people the opportunity to follow the Trump Administration’s latest advice to “Find Something New.” After all, cannabis jobs certainly fit the description.