If you’ve wondered why many of the younger progressives taking over the Democratic Party have accused Nancy Pelosi and her fellow septuagenarian top generals in the House of being out of touch with voters look no further than marijuana policy.
With marijuana now legal in one form or another in 31 states as well as the District of Columbia, and with polls repeatedly showing a whopping 62 percent of Americans supporting its outright legalization, many rank and file Democrats are growing increasingly frustrated that their top leaders in the House are promising no more than merely maintaining the status quo on pot policy if they recapture the lower chamber in November.
“I’ve supported these initiatives in my home state of California, so we’ll see what’s possible,” Pelosi responded at a recent press conference when asked if she has a plan to even bring marijuana legislation to the floor if she regains the title of speaker of the House.
“I don’t know where the president is on any of this. So any decision about how we go forward would have to reflect where we can get the result,” Pelosi responded.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the number two House Democrat, likewise said he and Pelosi hadn’t even discussed how their party plans to deal with marijuana policy should Democrats retake the House next month.
“We haven’t talked about that. We’re focused on jobs. We’re focused on infrastructure,” Hoyer told reporters last month.
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the third highest ranking Democrat in the House, who has been discussed as the future first African-American Speaker of the House, all but dismissed the issue entirely.
“It’s not important to me,” Clyburn told me just off the House floor last month. “It’s not. It’s just not the thing I focus on. I’m trying to focus on trying to get people out of poverty, trying to get people housing. I’m not focused on that. That’s not important to me, OK?”
But even in Clyburn’s staunchly conservative home state of South Carolina tweaking drug laws has had a huge impact. Back in 2010 a bipartisan group of lawmakers came together and overhauled the state’s criminal justice system in part by no longer prioritizing non-violent drug offenders. In the next six years, according to PEW, the prison population dropped by 14 percent, the state saved $491 million and the crime rate fell by 16 percent.
While many sitting Democrats won’t bad-mouth Pelosi and her top generals on the record, their stances on marijuana starkly contrast to the either fear-filled or utterly dismissive positions held by those current Democratic leaders.
“You won’t get me to comment on anyone else,” Rep. Beto O’Rourke told The Daily Beast, after posing for pictures with tourists on the steps of the Capitol, before the House recessed until after the election. “I’ll just tell you, for me, ending the prohibition on marijuana is a top priority. It’s fundamental to criminal justice reform.”
As you’ve likely heard, the 46-year-old O’Rourke is mounting a serious challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas. Cruz and his campaign have, according to many observers, tried to race-bait O’Rourke and falsely attempted to portray him as wanting to turn America into Amsterdam.
Cruz is favored to win, because, it seems, Texas is still Texas.
But even if O’Rourke loses, he’s already emerged from this Senate street brawl as a national Democratic icon—raking in a record-breaking haul of $38 million in this last quarter of fundraising. And if he decides to launch a White House bid he’ll be bringing his pro-marijuana message with him. He he has no regrets about embracing marijuana normalization in his deep red state, because he knows his neighbors and he’s never been surprised that the issue resonates across all demographics.
“No, actually because I’ve lived there my whole life and folks—people got there well before the politicians did,” he said.
Unlike O’Rourke, a small, though growing, handful of pro-marijuana reform Republicans are willing to comment on Pelosi and her top general’s non-committal, even contemptuous, attitude toward allowing a vote on marijuana bills if Democrats regain the majority.
“Then they’re as irresponsible as the Republican leadership,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) vented to The Daily Beast upon learning that Democratic leaders won’t promise a vote on marijuana if they regain control of the House. “It’s criminal justice. It’s small business. It’s an economic issue!”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who is suddenly locked in a shockingly close reelection battle, has claimed that Trump and Republicans will move on marijuana reform early next year if the GOP reclaims control of the House.
While he’s offered no proof that that’s the case, it’s isn’t lost on Democrats who want their party to own the issue.
“Part of the problem is not the candidates, it’s the people they hire as consultants or professional campaign managers,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told The Daily Beast on the phone last week. “They are notoriously risk-averse, and they don’t want to dive into new issues that they’d have to explore how to develop it.”
Over the past year, Blumenauer has been working behind the scenes feeding polling data on how popular marijuana is to more than 80 Democratic candidates. He’s also been hitting the pavement, or speaker platforms, nationwide trying to showcase how popular marijuana reform actually is outside the bubble of Washington.
He’s even thinking of hosting a boot camp next year for pollsters and consultants on how it’s actually a winning issue for the party.
This reticence from the old guard to attach the party to such a popular issue is filling many Democrats with disbelief.
“To me, this is such a no-brainer. It could bring the caucus together. It should be one of the first things we do. It’s a signal also to the Black Lives Matter,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) recently told The Daily Beast at the Capitol. “The low-hanging fruit is to decriminalize marijuana.”
Some Democratic candidates aren’t as smooth and polished, and they accuse any Democrats—whether they’re in the party’s leadership ranks or not—of being in bed with Big Pharma if they balk on marijuana reform.
“Why do you have to poll that garbage? We know for a fact these opioids have destroyed our communities,” surging West Virginia Democratic House candidate Richard Ojeda told The Daily Beast this week. “Right now our country is being turned into a mass grave of the thousands upon thousands of people that die every single year because of opioids that have been thrown at them like Tic Tacs.”