Democrats are beginning to pressure President Biden to take on marijuana reform as Congress struggles to find a path forward on decriminalization and as the party contemplates what’s possible before the midterms.
Liberals have been building momentum with just two months until the November elections with back-to-back wins on key pieces of Biden’s agenda, from student loans to health care and tax reform.
With the wind at their sails, they are now hoping to get the president on their side once again by moving toward what they believe would change the nation’s criminal justice system in a meaningful way.
“Now that the president has delivered on a progressive policy of student debt relief, he has seen an uptick in the polls, he’s united the base, put Republicans on the defensive and Democrats across the country seem to be riding the wave as well,” said Stacey Walker, an influential Iowa Democrat and former surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who focused on cannabis reform during the “unity task force” negotiations between the Biden and Sanders camps in 2020.
“Along with several members of President Biden’s senior leadership team, we all agreed that at the very least the president should decriminalize marijuana and reschedule it through executive action at the federal level,” Walker said of the negotiations following the last presidential election.
On the campaign trail, some Democratic candidates are becoming more vocal about the issue, seeking to reignite what they see is not only a moral imperative but a smart political move to maintain their majority.
The loudest call in recent weeks came from Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, one of the most prominent Democrats to publicly urge Biden ahead of a visit to the Keystone State to direct his political will toward reforms where a closely watched race to flip a Senate seat is currently skewing in Fetterman’s favor.
“It’s long past time that we finally decriminalize marijuana,” said Fetterman, who is comfortably leading against Republican nominee Mehmet Oz. “The president needs to use his executive authority to begin.”
Fetterman was not alone. His request came after a group of Democratic senators sent a letter to the Biden administration ahead of the August recess pushing the president to start addressing the issue. They asked officials at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to remove marijuana from the list of federal controlled substances and pardon those convicted of nonviolent cannabis-related offenses.
“I think Biden understands the larger issues at play here and I’m encouraged by that,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of the Democrats who signed on to the letter, told The Hill on Tuesday. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who also helped lead the letter, stressed, “There is more that we could do.”
The lawmakers said the request was a follow-up after receiving a “disappointing” response months prior, claiming the DOJ’s sole reason for not acting was a determination by the Department of Health and Human Services that “cannabis has not been proven in scientific studies to be a safe and effective treatment for any disease or condition.”
Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called the rationale “the complete illustration of the government having its head in the sand on this issue.”
“There’s well over 33,000, peer reviewed studies on cannabis for all kinds of ailments,” Altieri said, “and as everyone knows, there is about 36 states in this country that currently have active medical marijuana programs that have thousands and thousands of individuals in them that are benefiting from its therapeutic use.”
Progressives have also prioritized marijuana decriminalization by framing it as a racial justice issue, as people of color have continued to bear an outsized burden from the nation’s drug policies through the years, especially Black Americans.
A 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found Black people were more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than their white counterparts in the U.S. That disparity, the report said, has only worsened in dozens of states over a decade, despite both racial groups having similar usage rates.
At the same time, as a growing number of states have moved toward legalization or decriminalization in recent years, data shows Black Americans are drastically underrepresented in the country’s booming cannabis industry.
Figures crunched in Leafly’s 2021 Jobs Report showed that Black Americans accounted for “only 1.2 percent to 1.7 percent of all cannabis company owners,” despite making up about 12 percent of the country’s population.
Lawmakers and activists have urged Biden to sign reform from the Oval Office, which in their view would further round out what has become a staunchly progressive agenda from the moderate president. They claim the more Biden signs, the more he elevates his standing with the public.
Recent polling has provided credibility to that argument. Biden’s low approval, which has haunted his presidency for more than a year since the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, began to change after he signed the Inflation Reduction Act last month.
He further bolstered his credentials by putting forth a plan to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loan relief meant to help low-income young people and other Americans pay off debt for their education.
By decriminalizing marijuana, some activists and strategists say Biden would give another potential bump to voters in key swing states, noting that the policy is popular among many constituencies important to Democrats. Any move at the federal level could help inspire turnout among young voters and minority populations and could make a difference in races where the margin of error is tight.
“He gets a lot of flack from Democrats when he gives a speech on a single issue and they say, man you could have done this months ago,” said Douglas Wilson, a Democratic consultant from North Carolina.
Altieri, however, cautioned that drug scheduling is usually done through Congress and the process through the executive branch is “not as straightforward” as some Democrats have made it seem.
“It does involve interagency cooperation that largely will have to come from both the attorney general as well as the Department of Health and the secretary of Health,” Alteri said, before listing a series of steps the agencies would likely have to take to determine if marijuana needs to be descheduled.
“It’s a bit of a lengthy process to go through but, assuming the president put priority on it and he had supportive heads of those agencies, it’s something they could do,” he added.
Proponents agree, as marijuana decriminalization efforts have not yet found a place of consensus in Congress.
“I’d like for Congress to take this up, and I have a bill with others to do that. It’s long past time,” Warren told The Hill in July. “But so long as we’ve got Republicans blocking everything that we try to do, then the administration has an opportunity to step in and give us some much-needed relief.”
Many activists also recognize that, like the pathway to student loan forgiveness, decriminalization is likely to come from a grassroots-led approach.
Those who are mobilizing support on the ground see it as a numbers game: The more voices that are amplified in front of Biden, the easier it becomes to influence policy. Even better, some say, is that they have the support of key lawmakers in Congress, whom Biden has regularly expressed a desire to continue working with to enact his agenda.
According to a Pew Research study taken in April, 91 percent of respondents said they believe in legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, with 61 percent saying it should also be approved for recreational use.
While the issue has come up periodically, Biden has been cautious about appearing too enthusiastic about it. He campaigned in 2020 in support of what many progressives are pushing for, including prohibiting anyone from going to jail for recreational use and allowing states to legalize it, but he’s been slow to sign any type of executive action that grants broad federal rules.
Liberals are hoping that will change as the midterms get closer and as the president has momentum coming off of some of their previous hardest-fought policy pushes.
“We need Biden to take action,” said Moné Holder, senior director of advocacy and programs at Florida Rising. “I don’t see waiting as being an option. I think the time to strike is now. Those who are impacted by it, those who partake in it, whether we want to admit it or not can definitely see this as a gleam of hope.”