Can Cannabis Unify Republicans and Democrats?
Once upon a time, cannabis was one of the most divisive issues in the nation. Since well before federal prohibition in 1937, cannabis—or “marihuana”—was seen either as a corrupter of young Americans’ moral fiber and a mainline to a life of violent crime or as a beneficial, all-natural antidote to an increasingly commercialized, authoritarian state predicated on a dominant military-industrial complex.
Nowadays—thankfully!—things are a bit different. An overwhelming 88% of Americans support the legalization of medical cannabis, and a strong plurality (some 61%) favor decriminalization of recreational cannabis.
But if we as a nation have banded together on the subject of cannabis legalization, in other ways, the country feels as politically polarized as ever. Kind of makes us wonder: If so many of us agree on the benefits of cannabis, could it be a way of bringing us together as a nation? And some high-profile (no pun intended) politicians are asking the very same question.
An Ambitious Democratic Proposal
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is by any measure a rising star on the national stage. Formerly the mayor of troubled Newark, New Jersey, he earned his Senate seat in a special election in 2013. He’s seen as a bipartisan problem-solver with a focus on urban policy and criminal justice reform.
This August, Booker unveiled his proposal for legal cannabis, the Marijuana Justice Act. In addition to decriminalizing cannabis for all uses at the federal level, it’s designed to incentivize states to reform cannabis policies that have disproportionately affected citizens of color—on average, African-Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis offenses, despite roughly equal rates of use as whites—and have judges retroactively review past cannabis convictions.
A Republican-Led Return to States’ Rights
Meanwhile, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is another rising star of the Senate. At 54, he’s only a few years older than Senator Booker and comes from a proud Libertarian heritage (his father, Ron Paul, represented Texas in Congress and sought the Presidency three times in his long career).
The younger Paul approaches the issue of cannabis legalization from a different angle than Booker: The reliable Republican plank of states’ rights over those of the federal government. Essentially bypassing the question of whether or not federal laws should be rewritten, the CARERS Act proposed that, in essence, the laws of those states that opted to decriminalize cannabis should take precedence over federal statutes.
Cannabis Law: A Hard Row to Hoe, but Hope for the Future?
Regardless of the merits of these approaches, members of the current Administration have signaled their desire to crack down on cannabis, despite candidate Trump’s pledge to leave the question up to states.
But while the Republican-led Congress shows no signs of picking up the issue, the Booker and Rand plans—even if they have little chance of passage—are a hopeful sign that cannabis will be an important issue in the 2020 election. And even now, some unlikely players are pushing for cannabis law reform behind the scenes. Who knows what the future holds for cannabis in this country? Given the last few years, it’s safe to say that all bets are off.
Why Is Jeff Sessions So Wrong About Cannabis?
In an administration rife with controversial figures, Attorney General Jeff Sessions certainly makes the top of the list. In his decades-long political life, he’s been accused of, among other things:
The Ku Klux Klan reference, while troubling on many levels, is indicative of the Attorney General’s policy aims. Since taking office, one of Sessions’ most consistent goals has been to curb the liberalization of cannabis laws; in July, The Hill reported that the Department of Justice was gearing up for a renewed crackdown on cannabis by attempting to link it with violent crime. As he stated in a hearing before the Senate in 2016, he believes “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
As proponents and merchants of safe, legal and well-regulated cannabis, we’re troubled, to say the least. But we take hope, for several reasons—not least of which, the broad and growing support for legal cannabis in this country; a recent poll put overall support for recreational marijuana at 61%, and medical cannabis at a whopping 88%.
As pointed out in an article by two noted cannabis policy analysts, the Attorney General is battling the tide of history. And and we all know, fighting with history rarely ends well.
Studying Cannabis from Multiple Angles
While many policy analysts have studied cannabis from a clinical, social-impact or experiential perspective, marijuana’s increasing legalization both nationally and globally is setting the stage for a new sort of research: Cannabis’ financial impact, both as an industry in its own right and as a mitigating factor in rising healthcare costs.
The authors of the article we referenced earlier—the father-daughter team of Ashley C. and W. David Bradford—recently completed a study of cannabis’ potential impact on Medicare. Unsurprisingly (to cannabis activists), they found that had all 50 states legalized medical marijuana back in 2014, a year which saw a marked increase in prescription drug costs, Medicare would have saved roughly $1 billion, and potentially quite a bit more.
Why Attorney General Jeff Sessions Is On the Wrong Side of History
Now, the Bradfords use that data, and that gathered in other studies to argue that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ crusade against cannabis is an unwinnable, anti-historical and ultimately destructive approach. They point out:
- In direct opposition to Sessions’ statements and policies, the American medical community has largely resolved the question of whether or not cannabis is medically useful with a strong “Yes.”
- As found in a study by the American Journal of Public Health, cannabis may play a role in reducing traffic fatalities in legal-marijuana states.
- As found in their study of the impact of cannabis on Medicare, the financial and social positives in using marijuana to reduce America's’ dependence on opioids and other dangerous (and costly) painkillers are a strong incentive for increased liberalization.
And of course—as we mentioned earlier—the vast majority of Americans who support greater legalization represent a powerful force in their own right. In an era in which so many Americans feel politically disenfranchised, perhaps cannabis can serve as an unlikely—but powerful—unifying force. After all, regardless of our political views, we all want to live in greater liberty, health, and happiness, don’t we?