In Pennsylvania, for example, the state lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police is not changing its anti-legalization position. Even some Democratic lawmakers in the state remain unconvinced about the current legalization effort, despite the demonstrations.
State Sen. Judy Schwank is one Democrat who did not sign Street’s legalization letter. While her constituents support the concept of recreational sales, Schwank said she believes there should be more talks about what the policy looks like before the legislature begins to have hearings.
Schwank also said the Black Lives Matter protests have not changed the minds of her voters, who are more interested in cannabis as an economic boon. Those same dollar signs, she said, are also more likely to sway House Republicans — the strongest opponents of legalization.
“In more urban areas, I think they understand that this is an issue whose time has come, and the Black Lives Matter movement has put that into focus,” Schwank said. “But whether it’s moved the ‘not over my dead body’ guys, I don’t know.”
On Capitol Hill, it isn’t clear that racial justice protests have affected the motivation to pass marijuana policy reform. While many of the issue’s most prominent advocates have been silent on federal legalization in the last two months, House leaders are now considering a vote on the MORE Act — which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge some records — sometime this fall.
“The conversation around drug criminalization has changed a lot, and I do believe that people are now looking at it with a racial justice lens,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). While marijuana reform will not end police brutality on its own, Ocasio-Cortez said, marijuana enforcement is often used as a pretense for police violence — and lawmakers can easily look at the issue from both directions. “There are these two areas that are in tension with one another,” she said.
In June, Congress tried to reach an agreement on police reform. The House passed a sweeping policing bill largely along partisan lines. Senate Republicans introduced a more modest package of reforms, which Senate Democrats ultimately killed because it did not go far enough. Missing from either chamber’s proposal was anything that would overhaul federal marijuana policies. Even many of the most ardent champions of marijuana legalization as criminal justice reform were silent.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for marijuana legalization on the Senate floor, but Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) — who both co-sponsor legalization bills — did not. Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) wrote a letter asking their House colleagues to include marijuana legalization in the policing bill — but they did so alone. Even House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who introduced the MORE Act, did not join them.
“You have parts of this caucus … that are quite conservative, or have very specific ideas about how marijuana should be legalized,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who did not sign the Blumenauer-Lee letter, but who has pushed Congress to vote on criminal justice-related marijuana legislation before industry issues such as banking. “The amount of disagreement over that would really stall … any sort of legalization effort.”
Ocasio-Cortez said local governments have a greater ability to address decriminalization and legalization.
While state legislatures often move more quickly on controversial drug policy issues than Congress, it still took six years for Singer’s marijuana expungement bill to pass in overwhelmingly pro-cannabis Colorado. The term-limited legislator will leave office at the end of this year, and he said he couldn’t have lived with himself if he had not done everything in his power to get this done.
“This is one of those famous tipping points in history,” Singer said. “You can never quite predict where these tipping points occur, but when they do happen, you have to seize the moment and do the best you can, because you never know when the pendulum is gonna swing back the other way.”