The fate of America’s progressive cannabis policies like legalization and medical marijuana hang in the balance of a bizarre, general election on November 8.
The House already looks lost to Republican gerrymandering for at least four to six more years.
For marijuana policy reform to move forward, the election needs to end in a non-Trump presidency, and a shift in voting patterns that will turn red Senate seats blue.
And yet Trump, it seems, could be, on one hand, the worst candidate on marijuana policy, and on the other, the contender for creating the political climate to advance it.
Marijuana Policy Project director Rob Kampia told the National Cannabis Industry Association members in Oakland this Summer, “I have three things that keep me awake at night — Nevada, Arizona and Donald Trump.”
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were not considered serious contenders for the U.S. presidency early on in the race, but the American public’s distaste for the political elite thrust both candidates to unexpected success. In a shake-up that could have significant consequences on marijuana policy reform for a few reasons, both the Democratic and Republican parties were forced to confront their bases’ disenchantment with party leaders.
With his record-low likability numbers, Trump’s mere presence on the Republican ticket is set to depress core conservative voter turnout, and punish Republicans down-ticket.
It’s like the opposite of riding coattails. More like catching an infection. Trump could actually advance marijuana policy reform by tainting pot-hostile Congressional Republicans.
“Due to the historic unpopularity of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, there is real potential for Democrats to win a landslide election and win back a lot of Congressional seats in November,” Democratic strategist and pollster Ben Tulchin said, adding that a Democratic victory would “[open] the door for a potentially more favorable environment for how the federal government deals with medical marijuana and the recreational use of marijuana.”
In the unlikely case Trump wins, his assault on civil liberties would likely extend to marijuana legalization. The candidate’s own position on marijuana policy — that he supports medical but has seen some “negative reports” coming out of Colorado — is less troubling than his suspected nomination for Attorney General, New Jersey Governor and failed Presidential contender Chris Christie. Christie is widely criticized for stifling and interfering with medical marijuana legalization in his home state, and he was clear when he told radio host Hugh Hewitt he would “crack down and not permit” voter-initiated marijuana regulation in the growing number of states that have enacted it.
Firing Up Hill
Sanders is undoubtedly the most marijuana-friendly candidate, but conceded July 12. Still, Sanders’ threat to the Clinton candidacy pushed her campaign and the Democratic party to the left on issues that made Sanders so favorable among young, liberal voters.
“How does a barking 75-year-old guy touch 18-25 year-olds and she can’t?” NORML’s Executive Director Allen St. Pierre asked rhetorically. “I’m pretty sure [Clinton’s advisors] will say his clear and unequivocal position on marijuana legalization.”
St. Pierre tells Cannabis Now he expects Sanders’ influence to keep pushing Clinton on the issue, adding that at minimum, she would likely stay the non-interventionist course of the Obama administration.
“Many of us would be quite happy with the status quo as compared with what could happen with Chris Christie,” St. Pierre explained, noting that marijuana legalization has and will continue to be driven by voter initiative and not federal law.
Deputy Director of Drug Policy Action Bill Collins summarized Clinton’s potential as many other liberal advocates might: “I think the question with Hillary Clinton is how much progress can she make?”
Tulchin said Sanders’ position on the issue could be effective beyond Clinton. “Bernie Sanders became the first major candidate in the Democratic party to come out and support [legalizing, regulating and taxing] marijuana,” Tulchin said. “He’s been a major force in the Democratic party.and it has opened up the doors for other members of Congress to take a progressive stance on [marijuana policy reform].”
Indeed, in July, the Democratic National Committee wrote into the party’s 2016 platform support for re-scheduling cannabis and a “pathway to legalization.” The GOP failed to add cannabis legalization to their own national plank, which about 56 percent of Americans support. The DNC’s expressed support could prove ever-useful as Democrats stand a chance at taking the majority in the Senate, potentially releasing Republicans’ gridlock on marijuana-related bills.
Keeping On Senator Grassley
If Democrats gain the four or five seats (depending on a Clinton or Trump win) necessary to take back the Senate, bills caught in Republican-imposed gridlock might stand a chance in at least one chamber.
“In most cases any Democrat would be better on marijuana reform,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs at Drug Policy Alliance, tells Cannabis Now, “Or put another way, if Democrats pick up seats in the Senate that is probably more votes in support of reform.”
Despite bipartisan support for marijuana policy reform bills, the old-school Republicans chairing committees keep killing aisle-crossing reform.
“There are a number of issues that the American public is significantly ahead of Congressional leadership on,” Representative Blumenauer (D-OR) said, adding that for the latter group, “Marijuana reform is not a priority.”
“They’re skeptical. In some cases, they’re hostile,” Rep. Blumenauer continued, making the point that, “Since a majority of their members are still opposed, they may not want them exposed to taking votes that might be controversial.” For Republicans representing conservative districts where marijuana legalization has a long way to come, the issue is much more sensitive.
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, has tied-up popular proposals that do not align with his personal politics, or those of the Republican base.
“The Republican Committee chairs from Republican leadership have fought against bringing any votes to the floor, so the only votes we’ve had are on amendments,” Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) tells Cannabis Now.
One of the movement’s biggest advocates in government, Rep. Polis has spearheaded banking and taxation reform, allowing Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana, and a framework for federal regulations — often with frustrating results.
“We passed a number of measures, but none of them have been allowed to become law because Republicans aren’t allowing a vote on the actual bills,” Rep. Polis said.
The only way for Democrats to take the committees is to take the majority.
Grassley’s now facing the toughest race of his life after a dive in popularity for blocking a hearing for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, leaving the Supreme Court down one crucial member and potential tie-breaker.
If Democrats managed to sweep the Senate (and oust Grassley), some crucial reforms — namely, the CARERS act could make marijuana easier to research and protect patients. The CARERS Act has 37 cosponsors, bipartisan support and represents a vast majority of Americans’ position on medical marijuana.
“We probably have the votes we need to pass CARERS, but Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has been unwilling to bring it or any other marijuana reform up for vote,” Piper said. “Grassley is the main obstacle to reform in the Senate. He is facing the toughest reelection in a long time.”
Still, the Senate offers hope in replacing some obstacles with potential pathways to reform, and the addition of at least some Democrats to the House members doesn’t hurt.
Rep. Blumenauer says if the Senate flips and Democrats take control, the leadership of committees could include marijuana advocates like his Oregon colleagues Senators Jeff Merkley (on the Financial Services Committee, which is important for banking reform) and Ronald Wyden (on Senate Finance, crucial to regulating taxation).
Democratic victories in states with legal marijuana (or that might legalize on election day) are generally considered especially favorable by advocates who note that the issue is more concerning to constituents in other states.
In Ohio, for example, Republican Rob Portman is well-financed (by the Koch industry) but nonetheless vulnerable to Democratic challenger Ted Strickland. Both support medical marijuana, which the Ohio legislature passed earlier this year. Strickland has said he would support legalization if it were not organized under a monopoly (like the controversial, failed ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Ohio last year).
In Nevada, a state likely to legalize in November, the issue becomes more precarious: The Republican candidate Joe Heck has a strong voting record in support of marijuana policy reform, but his Democratic challenger, Catherine Cortez Morto, has said she sees “no benefit” in marijuana legalization. While Heck may add to Republican support for marijuana policy reform, his election won’t aid in the Democratic sweep that would shake up committees blocking votes.
Another big problem: old-guard conservatives like Grassley have seniority in major committees in the House of Representatives, too.
A House Divided
The chances of a Democratic majority in the House are much slimmer, in part due to 2010 gerrymandering by Republicans. That led to Tea Partiers like Paul Ryan, as well as maverick House Rep. Dana Rohrabacher who de-funded the Department of Justice’s war on medical cannabis in 2014 and again in 2015.
Earlier this summer, the powerful U.S. House Rules Committee blocked amendments granting banking services to marijuana services and letting Washington, D.C. fund its own marijuana regulation system.
“If Republican leadership in the House can survive Trump’s candidacy and remain in power, then little is going to happen because the House will block any significant change in law,” longtime cannabis political consultant Bill Zimmerman said. “We would be in a very unfortunate situation because, I believe, the next opportunity to alter Republican control of House isn’t for four to six years.”
The wait could be even longer, given that, “Republicans control the house primarily because of gerrymandering districts that came about as a result of the 2010 census. They were able to redraw congressional district lines that favor Republicans,” Zimmerman explained.
The next remapping won’t happen until 2020.