President Joe Biden marked his first 100 days in the White House this week with a pair of grandiloquent speeches packed with ambitious promises.
The sparse crowd of socially distanced lawmakers in Congress on Wednesday and the motorists at Thursday’s car rally in Georgia heard the same message: America is back, and so is an activist government. Channeling Franklin Roosevelt more than Barack Obama, Biden vowed to raise taxes, provide guaranteed jobs, and restore a social safety net to a level not seen since New Dealers were in office.
As NBC News noted on Friday, that’s pleasantly surprised progressive lawmakers, many of whom backed Sen. Bernie Sanders over the president in last year’s primary.
But one very popular reform that Biden is not pushing is any review of the Controlled Substances Act, the Nixon-era federal law that outlaws marijuana and other drugs.
So far, the Biden Administration’s signature “accomplishment” on marijuana has been to fire White House staffers for admitting they used cannabis, even in states where the drug is legal. Prominent Democratic senators are in turn saying they aren’t on board with legalization.
“We continue to see leadership on the issue of ending our nation’s failed and racist prohibition on marijuana from just about everyone except the White House,” said Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization For the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the nation’s oldest dedicated legalization lobby.
All this may have foiled Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s attempt to push legalization in the Senate before it even has a chance to begin, kicking federal reform to after the mid-term elections, or to Biden’s second term (if there is one).
In February, Schumer announced that his Senate would do what no other Senate has done, and introduce and pass legislation reforming federal marijuana policy. Even passing banking reform, as the House has done several times, most recently on the eve of 4/20, would be significant, but Schumer has set the bar at outright legalization.
“Hopefully, the next time this unofficial holiday, 4/20, rolls around, our country will have made progress in addressing the massive overcriminalization of marijuana in a meaningful and comprehensive way,” said Schumer, who also tweeted out a “Happy 420” message.
Whether this is smart politics or naked pandering (Schumer represents New York state, where just-legalized cannabis is expected to be a $4.2 billion industry in just a few years’ time) may not matter, since with Biden in office, Schumer appears to be whistling in the dark.
When asked by the San Francisco Chronicle about Biden’s plans for drug-policy reform, Vice President Kamala Harris replied that the president is simply too busy, with coronavirus relief, dismantling Trump-era policies, and all that.
No president is too busy to set a clear policy agenda that is then amplified (or at least supported) by lawmakers in the Senate. Very tellingly, Biden has not done this, either. As Politico reported on 4/20, Democratic senators from New Hampshire, Montana, and elsewhere have already said they won’t support a federal legalization plan.
“I don’t support legalizing marijuana,” said New Hampshire’s Sen. Jeanne Shaheen—whose state is surrounded on all sides by places with legal cannabis: Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Canada. For justification, Shaheen reached very deep into the drug-war bag and pulled out a version of gateway theory, suggesting that legal pot would turn more people onto deadly opiates.
Other lawmakers who said Schumer’s plan isn’t for them include Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Such open defiance means that Schumer is either not very good at whipping votes, or he’s being undermined by the leader of his own party in the White House.
It could be both, but either way, the practical effect is that whatever cannabis bill he finally introduces has no chance of passage.
Since 60 votes are needed to pass Senate legislation, and since there are only 50 Democrats in the Senate, Schumer needs every single Democrat as well as some Republicans. He has neither, which means marijuana legalization still isn’t happening at the federal level under President Joe Biden.
This has upset and irritated cannabis advocates who hoped for more, and who remember all too well being bitterly disappointed by Obama’s first-term drug policies more than a decade ago, but maybe they shouldn’t have misled themselves.
Biden never said he’d legalize marijuana federally, even though that’s what almost 70 percent of Americans want. Yes, adult-use cannabis is now legal in all of the country’s biggest cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Biden can keep that status quo intact without angering law-enforcement lobbies or social conservatives of the kind that Democratic strategists still believe are necessary to win votes in places like Georgia, Texas, and South Florida. On drugs, Biden came just as advertised.
“By failing to express any support for ending a war on marijuana that leads to the arrest of over 500,000 mostly black and brown Americans per year, Joe Biden certainly isn’t helping whip the votes in Congress or doing himself any favors with the general public,” NORML’s Altieri added. “Our elected officials in the House and Senate can and should move forward without him, but Biden’s old school mentality on marijuana isn’t making the path to civil liberties and racial justice any easier.”