For decades, anti-drug advocates have warned that peer pressure is a one-way ticket to reefer madness. Now, advocates on Capitol Hill and in the burgeoning cannabis industry hope their increasingly successful legalization campaign can go nationwide with a similar strategy, aimed squarely at pushing President Joe Biden to just say “yes.”
“What we know is that President Biden has extended to Vice President Harris the same measure of respect that he had with President Obama—whenever there’s a decision to be made, the last person in the room with the president is the vice president,” said Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “I would expect that the president would be hearing from Vice President Harris on this, getting her input, understanding why she has been a supporter of legalization, and I think at that point, she would be incredibly important in delivering that message.”
As a senator, Harris was the sponsor of the Senate version of the MORE Act, which would have removed cannabis from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and would have eliminated criminal penalties for growing, selling or possession of it. The act, seen in the pro-cannabis community as a model for sensible legalization, would also have expunged convictions for federal cannabis offenses—and is the exact kind of bill that legalization advocates hope Harris might advocate for within the administration.
“Vice President Harris has a track record already, even before she ran for president,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and a longtime supporter of federal legalization. “The stars are aligned within the administration.”
The possibility of fully legalizing the use, possession and sale of cannabis coast to coast has never seemed so close. Polling shows that seven out of 10 Americans believe that marijuana use should be fully legal, an all-time high, and 17 states across the country have legalized recreational cannabis, including four states—New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, and Virginia—that have done so since Biden’s inauguration.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the first member of the party’s congressional leadership to have come out in favor of legalization, promised last week that he would introduce a bill legalizing recreational cannabis “soon,” telling Politico that legislation to that effect is in the works with Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
“I think the American people started speaking with a clear message… that they want the law changed,” Schumer said. “When a state like South Dakota votes by referendum to legalize, you know something is out there.”
But advocates—and the administration—acknowledge that Biden remains unconvinced.
“He believes in decriminalizing the use of marijuana, but his position has not changed” on legalization, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters late last month, after she was asked about The Daily Beast’s reporting on the administration’s controversial personnel policy on past cannabis use. “That’s been his position. Nothing has changed.”
The president has demonstrated a knack for pursuing highly popular policies as a way to dull the edge of Republican opposition in Congress, frontloading popular agenda items like direct COVID-19 relief payments and infrastructure spending while slow-walking other priorities that aren’t so widely supported. But he has not done so with marijuana legalization, despite the rush of states that have chased legal cannabis as a potential solution to budget shortfalls due to the pandemic.
Those close to the president speculate that part of his continued opposition to marijuana legalization is due to the influence of his longtime council of elders, advisers who have supported Biden for decades and who aren’t as concerned with staying in touch with changing cultural tides.
“If you want to trace the White House policy on sending aides to a farm upstate because they smoked too much legal weed, you can bet it leads to them,” one former Senate staffer told The Daily Beast.
But within the administration, advocates see one potential ally in their quest for legalizing cannabis: Vice President Kamala Harris.
“Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?” Harris joked in an appearance on The Breakfast Club in 2019. Harris, then a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, told host Charlamagne tha God that while it had been a long time since she’d inhaled, cannabis “gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy in this world.”
The comment faced a chilly reception from critics of Harris’ past work as a prosecutor—left-wing Democrats deemed her a “cop” during her presidential run—as well as from her father, a Jamaican-American economist who found the remark not at all funny. Others took those comments—and her more recent record—as a positive sign for the future of cannabis legalization.
“Vice President Harris served as the lead sponsor of… legislation that would have brought federal prohibition to an end,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “We’d encourage President Biden to listen to the advice of his vice president, keep his campaign promises, and put himself on the right side of history by supporting this upcoming legislation and ultimately signing it when it reaches his desk.”
Wyden, one of the co-authors of the coming legislation, told The Daily Beast that while he would not discuss any specific conversations he’d had with the vice president, “I think that everyone knows her roots” on the issue.
“She’s been very supportive of it, and obviously there’s going to be a debate in the Biden administration,” Wyden said. “The issue that I think is going to become increasingly relevant is with millions and millions of Americans already having gone to the polls to vote in line with the kind of approach the Majority Leader, Sen. Booker and I are talking about, that strengthens our hand.”
Blumenauer, who has been working on ending cannabis prohibition longer than nearly every other member of Congress, told The Daily Beast that even with Biden’s publicly stated opposition to full legalization, the current landscape is “the most encouraging set of circumstances we’ve ever had.”
“I’m not worried about where Joe Biden is ultimately going to be,” Blumenauer said. “Remember, he was part of an administration that could have shut this down with those state ballot measures in Washington State and Colorado… They promulgated the Cole Memo, which said that as long as people obey their own state laws, the federal government’s going to leave ’em alone. And they did.”
Blumenauer, noting that he considers a day that he doesn’t get to advocate for either cannabis or bicycles a day wasted, emphasized the importance of allowing Biden the opportunity to evolve on the issue without a pressure campaign—particularly when the issue in question is backed by public polling, scientific consensus and political common sense.
“One of the things that’s important and that I have tried to do with fellow politicians, is that they need to get to the conversation on their own terms,” Blumenauer said. “I’m convinced that the Biden administration will be there when we need them.”
Harris’ unique position as a demonstrated supporter of federal legalization, of course, hasn’t prompted advocates to leave the bill’s fate up to the D.A.R.E. model of passing cannabis legalization via Oval Office peer pressure.
“We know where Vice President Harris is on this issue, but the first step is Congress doing its job to get cannabis reform to the president’s desk,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus. “My focus remains on finishing our job in the House and continuing to build momentum in the Senate so we can pass a comprehensive bill to send to President Biden to sign it into law. This is a racial justice movement that has been long in the making. It’s time for Congress to catch up.”
Stakeholders have been in contact with Senate Democratic leadership as well as Booker and Wyden’s office as the legislation is being drafted, an implicit acknowledgement that ending the prohibition against cannabis is going to be driven by Congress rather than the executive branch.
“While we haven’t seen the draft language yet, this kind of stakeholder engagement is a great sign,” said Morgan Fox with the National Cannabis Industry Association, the largest cannabis trade association in the country. Fox told The Daily Beast that although Biden is on the record as opposing fully legalizing cannabis for adults, “it is hard to imagine a scenario in which he would veto such legislation or interfere with its passage.”
“In terms of making the case to Biden generally, I think the social justice, economic opportunity, and public safety benefits are impossible to ignore, as are the failure of the status quo and the harms it is causing,” Fox said. “There are many people in proximity to the president, particularly Vice President Harris, who are strongly in favor of descheduling cannabis, and I expect them to be a positive influence as legislation gets closer to his desk.”
But that doesn’t mean that cannabis supporters don’t hope that Harris could be the nudge that Biden might need to evolve on the issue—much like his own endorsement of same-sex marriage pushed President Barack Obama to come out in support of marriage equality when he was vice president.
Rep. Don Young (R-AK), spokesperson Zack Brown told The Daily Beast, is “encouraged that some of his former colleagues now serving in the administration voted for it last year as well,” and is hopeful that Biden will “give a fair hearing to advocates in his own administration… who recognize the value in revisiting our federal cannabis policies and protecting individual liberty.”
“Whether she voices her opinion when the bill comes out, I could only speculate on that,” Hawkins said. “But I would think that she would be instrumental if it got to the point where he was weighing a decision as to whether he was going to sign a comprehensive bill descheduling cannabis.”
—with additional reporting by Sam Brodey