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The 2020 Election Showed Broad Support for Cannabis Legalization; When Will It Happen?

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

With a new Democratic majority in the Senate, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Congress will respond to public opinion and fully legalize recreational cannabis in the next year or two. And the November election showed increasing and broad support for decriminalization and legalization in both red and blue states.

Conservative states South Dakota and Montana, which both went for Trump in the election, both passed broad legalization measures for marijuana on November 4. And so did voters in moderate Arizona, and progressive New Jersey, adding to the national total of 15 states that have approved broad legalization efforts.

Also in this election, voters in Mississippi approved a medical marijuana measure for the first time,

As the Associated Press reports, with medical marijuana now legally available in 36 states, and 68 percent of voters expressing approval for federal legalization in a November 9 Gallup poll, the country seems poised for a major sea change under the Biden Administration.

Back in 1992, when then candidate for President Bill Clinton claimed he “didn’t inhale,” national support for legalization was around 25 percent. In 2003, approval was around 34 percent.

Vice President Kamala Harris has already previously lent her support to the Senate version of a legalization bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives last year. The MORE Act (short for the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019), which has yet to be brought to the House floor for debate or a vote, would remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, and would also make the sale, manufacture, cultivation, and possession of cannabis legal at the federal level. It would also make Small Business Administration loans available to cannabis businesses, establish a 5-percent tax on cannabis products, and establish a trust fund to help those whose lives were negatively impacted by the War on Drugs, funded by the tax.

But, as the AP notes, former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has held a conservative line on cannabis and blocked any legislation from reaching the Senate floor in recent years. And while cannabis legalization may easily pass a House vote, there are still far too many older senators and social conservatives among Democrats in the Senate to assume that legalization will happen in the current Congress, as Politico noted in November.

Conservative governors around the country have continued to talk about cannabis as a “gateway drug,” and to generally act like it’s still 1960 out there and like there’s some clean and sober American ideal that must be upheld — alcohol not included.

“We’ve waged a war against this plant for a century and by any reasonable metric, that war has been an abject failure,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, in a statement to the AP. “All it’s done is incarcerate millions of Americans, it has perpetuated racism in this country, and perhaps the worst injustice of all is that it’s deprived us of medical marijuana research.”

Schweich adds that whenever a patient, especially a veteran, gets pushed toward highly addictive opioid painkillers instead of cannabis to treat chronic pain, “That’s unpatriotic and it’s a disgrace.”

Speaking to Politico prior to the election, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) said, “You have sort of a convergence of all of these movements and issues and hype [around cannbis]. “I think this is the perfect time to move it onto the floor [and] over to the Senate.”

So when will it happen? Democrats have lots of arguably bigger fish to fry in Congress as President Biden prepares to set his agenda in motion, and with the advantage of a one-vote margin in the Senate, things might actually get done there for the first time in a decade. Could cannabis legalization at the federal level finally become more than a pipe dream?

Only six out of 50 states currently don’t allow for medical cannabis, and treat marijuana as completely illegal: Alabama, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

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