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Legal Weed Versus Law and Order, With Democrats Trapped in the Middle

Nancy Pelosi wanted to court voters with drug reform. Now worries about crime have her moderate members balking.

Can’t Americans agree on anything these days? One point of consensus seems to be that we should all be able to light up. Late last year, the Pew Research Center found that Americans support legalizing marijuana by a margin of 67 percent to 32 percent, close to a mirror image of what those numbers looked like 20 years ago. And unlike on some issues, there wasn’t a racial or class-based gap: whites were about as likely to favor legalization as blacks, GED holders the same as postgraduates. Fifty-five percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning respondents thought weed ought to be permitted.

So it makes sense that House Democrats would want to leverage the issue heading into the election. To that end, back in May, they passed the SAFE Banking Act, which included language that would have shielded financial institutions that service the marijuana industry from federal penalties. Now they’re circulating another bill called the MORE Act. (Forget pot: the real money is in euphemistic acronyms for congressional legislation.) The MORE Act would, as Ulrik Boesen summarizes it, “de-schedule marijuana, expunge prior convictions, impose a federal excise tax on marijuana sales, provide access to capital for small marijuana businesses, and allocate revenue to people impacted by prior drug enforcement policies.”

For Democrats, the push on pot isn’t just a criminal justice issue; it’s a racial issue, a way of highlighting the disparities that exist with regard to marijuana arrests. There’s just one problem: by addressing weed, they’re running afoul of another political trend. Politico reports:

Moderate Democrats, such as Reps. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), Max Rose (N.Y.), Lucy McBath (Ga.) and Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.), have been hit by Republicans for supporting a bill to “defund the police” — despite the fact that the bill does not defund police, but rather would create a national database to track offenses and crack down on excessive force. Those attacks, however, have increased worries about how voting to expunge cannabis records will play among voters already uneasy about broad police reform.

House leaders are now talking about punting the marijuana decriminalization bill — which was planned for a vote next week — until the lame duck session, in hopes of soothing moderate worries weeks before the election and getting a higher vote count for the weed bill in return.

There are other reasons the MORE Act has stalled too, notably Congress’ failure to pass another round of coronavirus relief, which the moderate Dems are using as cover, claiming they’re too busy working on economic stimulus to deal with drugs. It may also be that they view the effort as futile: Mitch McConnell’s Senate has made it known it wants nothing to do with either the SAFE Act or the MORE Act. But the greater issue here seems to be a wariness, especially in purple districts, of an electorate that’s feeling increasingly tough on crime and of police unions that are throwing their weight around.

Whatever you think of legal pot, there’s reason enough here for proceduralist despair. How can Congress function when it can’t even take on an immensely popular issue during an election year? But the main takeaway is that the law-and-order backlash is very real (if not necessarily determinative). Pew finds that violent crime is the fifth most important issue to prospective voters, higher than gun rights, climate change, immigration, and abortion. Monmouth University finds that 65 percent of respondents think maintaining law and order is a “major problem” (though almost that same number say Trump is making things worse, another story for another day).

It may thus be that angry riots in the streets end up making a casualty out of a drug that relaxes you. So it goes in 2020, when that doesn’t even rise to the top of our political weirdness.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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