This reflects one of the most rapid shifts in public opinion and law we’ve seen in recent years and, now, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced legislation to end the federal prohibition on marijuana — and he’s not exactly anyone’s idea of a bold trendsetter on the bleeding edge of cultural change.
Schumer’s bill, which he debuted this week alongside Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.), is not dramatically different from President Biden’s position on the issue. But Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, was pressed by reporters Wednesday on whether he supports Schumer’s bill. When she offered the blandest possible answer (“no new endorsements of legislation to report today”), it made news, making Biden seem divided from his party and behind the times.
The truth is that, while every politician wants to be known as a “leader,” most are assiduous followers when it comes to public opinion, worrying less about persuading the public than telling voters they agree with them. And when public beliefs change, politicians can often lag behind.
Which may account for Biden’s reluctance to endorse full legalization. It’s only recently that doing so wouldn’t mark you as a liberal outlier if not a radical; because opinion has changed so quickly, a politician such as Biden isn’t yet comfortable embracing it.
The public is already there, however. Many polls now show support for full legalization reaching two-thirds of Americans or more, sometimes including a majority of Republicans. When it comes to medical marijuana, more than 90 percent support it.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden favored a form of federal decriminalization, in which cannabis would be moved from Schedule I to Schedule II (meaning it would still be classified as dangerous, but more research would be allowed), federal convictions for possession would be expunged, and states could pursue their own legal regimes without federal interference.
The Schumer bill would go farther by eliminating federal prohibitions completely; it would also impose new taxes and a regulatory structure on cannabis. The bill, Schumer said in a statement, “would help the federal government catch up with what much of the country already understands, that we need to rethink our approach to marijuana and end decades of over-criminalization.”
There are certainly criticisms one can make of Schumer’s bill (libertarians have panned its tax and regulation provisions), but it’s still remarkable to see the leader of the Senate advocating such legalization.
Yet here’s something we haven’t seen: a major political candidate who put marijuana legalization at the center of their campaign for office.
There are plenty of other issues with less broad support that candidates have championed, but even for Democrats who support legalization, it’s seldom something to which they seek to draw particular attention, to the point where they think voters will choose them based on that issue alone.
Booker may be the closest thing to an exception on the national level. He has advocated legalization for years, and famously confronted Biden about the issue in a debate when both were running for president. An even better example is Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is running for an open Senate seat in 2022 and has been loud and proud in advocating legalization.
If Fetterman wins, more Democrats may see legalization as a politically profitable issue, rather than something they’re reluctantly pulled along with. Two former congressional candidates from Texas recently argued that “workers, wages, and weed” should be the core of the Democratic message, one that can be taken to both red and blue states — especially because Republican politicians tend to reflexively oppose legalization no matter how many of their own supporters favor it.
It’s unlikely that will be Biden’s reelection slogan, but like other Democrats he may find himself being pulled more toward legalization, and faster than he expected. And if Schumer’s bill were to one day pass Congress? I’d bet Biden would sign it. He knows which way the wind blows.