How Democrats Fail on Legalized Marijuana


Marijuana plants

Advocates of marijuana say they are making progress, including in previously hostile areas of the country, even though this year has not lived up to their hopes. | Seth Perlman / AP Photo

It was supposed to be the big year for the legalization of marijuana. But in many state capitals across the country, efforts have stalled or failed as Democrats clashed for everything from race to criminal justice to how to divide a silver mine. tax revenue.

The legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes seemed almost inevitable in at least half a dozen states at the beginning of the year – including the Democratic legislatures of New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

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But, from state to state, the proposals have been subject to significant turbulence and the time has now come for the legislature.

The highest legislator in New Jersey said the state's legalization campaign was dead and would rather support a referendum on the 2020 poll. The New York Democrats are trying to revive efforts to pass a bill that would allow recreational use after negotiations cease during the March budget process. And in New Mexico, a bill on legalization has been set aside for more pressing priorities, including increased funding for education.

Disputes over issues of racial and economic justice, the cultivation of cannabis plants at home, and state revenues related to marijuana broke the Democrats as they sought enough votes to be adopted.

"The legislative process is difficult, complicated and it is very difficult to agree on a large-scale social reform," said John Hudak, senior researcher in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and author of "Marijuana: a brief history, "noting that advocates of marijuana often overestimate its value. "Although cannabis reform is very popular, it's not a subject that most Americans love."

Marijuana advocates report improbable victories in previously hostile areas of the country. The Alabama Senate, for example, recently passed a law on marijuana for medical purposes and Texas House introduced bills reducing the penalties for marijuana possession and expanding its medical program.

But overall, the year did not live up to their expectations.

At this point, Illinois seems to be the best choice to get a full legalization bill at the finish line, but it is still uncertain that two weeks have elapsed before the adjournment. The budget plan of Freshman Gov. J. Pritzker is counting on the pot to generate about $ 500 million for the cash-strapped state.

"We think we are getting closer," Heather Steans, the main sponsor of the legalization bill SB7, told POLITICO recently about legalization. "We are working on these two years. This is a collaborative process with many stakeholders at the table. "

One of the major problems of Illinois – especially with the police – is to allow people to grow cannabis plants at home. Steans said it hoped the final wording of the bill would only marijuana users for medical purposes grow their own.

"We think there is a strong rationale for this because it can not be covered by insurance or by Medicaid," Steans said. "And that facilitates the task of the forces of order."

But some Illinois Democrats, including Chicago's outgoing mayor, Rahm Emanuel, fear lawmakers will try to pass legalization too quickly to reap the financial benefits.

"Do not go into this adventure just because we are thirsty and hungry for income," he told POLITICO.

One of the most difficult issues is how to address the equity issues raised by the drug war, with minorities facing disproportionate financial and criminal penalties for drug possession for decades.

In New York, some Latin American and Afro-American lawmakers refused their support for legalization because they said criminal justice reform and provisions to ensure minority participation in the new legalization – and potentially very lucrative – the market does not go far enough to correct historical inequalities.

On Thursday, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Illinois Capitol to demand that a dedicated flow of funding from marijuana sales be used to reduce violence and put in place programs that energize the communities disproportionately affected by the repression of lower level drug offenses.

On the other hand, in New Jersey, some elements of the three-bill package have ranked conservative and moderate Democrats in South Jersey's powerful voting bloc. A stumbling block: a provision that allowed to cancel the third-degree convictions for the distribution, covering up to five pounds of marijuana.

In the end, these fractures derailed the New Jersey legislation. Senate Speaker Steve Sweeney is instead supporting a 2020 referendum on full legalization.

"I know the governor has tried. We spoke two or three times a week when we tried to do it, but no vote list was provided to show that they were close, "said Sweeney at a conference of press Wednesday. He added that Governor Phil Murphy "Did not listen to the advice given to him by lawmakers" on how to strengthen support for legalization.

The bumpy road that legalization bills have encountered in the state legislatures is not totally surprising given the lack of success in the past. Of the 10 states enjoying full legalization, only one – Vermont – has adopted it during the legislative process. And there, the possession was legalized, but the recreational sales remain prohibited. All the others have been submitted to referendums, a process much clearer, because the voters can only approve or reject the proposals as they are. Marijuana bills for medical purposes have been more successful in state capitals, with 16 states having enacted laws.

"I admit that it is difficult to do so by legislation," Murphy said at a press conference, adding that he considered that the elements of radiation and of social justice were the main reasons for legalizing cannabis through legislation rather than referendum. "We are a lot more complicated than Vermont. It has always been by default to hold a referendum and ask the people. "

Advocates of marijuana say they are making progress, including in previously hostile areas of the country, even though this year has not lived up to their hopes.

Karen O'Keefe, Director of State Policy for the Marijuana Policy Project, also says it has taken years in New York and Illinois to get support for marijuana bills for some purpose. medical.

"I worked in marijuana politics for 15 years and having Democratic majorities in both houses did not even make it easy for me to transmit marijuana for medical purposes," O'Keefe said. . "Elected officials tend to be away from the public on this issue."

But opponents of legalization argue that lawmakers inevitably turn against proposals when they are presented with evidence of public health concerns, particularly with respect to driving under the influence of drugs and drugs. marijuana use by children. They insist on the decline of the legalization movement.

"Each year, well-paid pot lobbyists come to state capitals to promise that marijuana legalization bills are a panacea for state budgets and social justice," said Kevin Sabet, President of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who has worked to defeat legalization bills across the country. in a statement to POLITICO: "The fact is that the legalization of marijuana is a policy that has failed and has disastrous effects in all the states that legalize.

The lawyers of the legalization make fun of such affirmations. They point out that polls showing strong bipartisan support for legalization are proof that, whatever the setbacks, progress will continue. Even if legislative efforts in Illinois and New York collapse this year, they will push back the bills in 2020, and Connecticut's efforts to pass full legalization this year make steady progress. In addition, referendums on the legalization of marijuana will likely appear at the polls of states beyond New Jersey, including possibly on the presidential battlefields of Florida and Ohio.

"In the grand scheme of things, our reform movement is just starting to get safe after all these years of prohibition," said Carly Wolf, policy coordinator for the NORML marijuana advocacy group. "It's about managing expectations and thinking realistically. … It is not realistic to expect the legislatures of the five states to approve legalization bills in a single year. "

Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.

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