Apr 20, 2018, 7:40 PM ET

Lawmakers become more vocal about legalizing marijuana as public support grows

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Lawmakers have become more vocal about their support of legalization of marijuana, including talking about it on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress.

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It's a move that comes in the wake of a majority of states legalizing medical usage combined with the revenue coming in from those sales and polls showing growing public support on the issue.

Democrats tend to favor legalization the most. Many of them define it as an issue of racial injustice, citing statistics that show minorities are arrested at greater rates than whites for marijuana-related offenses.

“Our archaic and nonsensical laws on cannabis are turning everyday Americans into criminals, sending them to jail, ruining their lives, tearing their families apart and wasting huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people for marijuana use, a substance that has been proven time and time again to be less dangerous than alcohol,” Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said at the National Cannabis Summit in Washington, D.C. on Friday.

It's also an issue that’s popular with two large voting groups in their party – minorities and youth – and one that Democratic candidates have touted on the campaign trail this cycle.

But there are Republicans who support legalization. They, however, tend to talk about the financial aspect, noting how the product that can boost their state’s coffers.

Republican Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia, who introduced legislation last year that would take marijuana off the federal controlled substances list, said he changed his mind after meeting people who were helped by medical marijuana and, therefore, thought his agricultural-heavy state should benefit from it.

“Why, why, why are we importing nearly a billion dollars’ worth a year of industrial hemp from Canada when we can grow it better and create economic opportunities right here in Virginia? There's no good answer,” he said on a tele-town hall in February, according to a local news report.

An October Gallup poll found 64% of Americans supported legalization. Breaking that down, 72% of Democrats supported it while 51% of Republicans did.

Jon Gettman, an associate professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia who studies marijuana policy, said the lawmakers’ moves aren’t surprising.

“You have not only pronounced public support in terms of legalization,” he told ABC News, “you have demonstrated support with the initiatives passed and the emergence of state law.”

And marijuana has become legal in large states that are represented by powerful members of Congress such as California, Colorado, and Florida.

“We’re getting some significant stakeholders in the United States Congress now,” Gettman said.

And they're likely hearing from the voters back home.

“They’re probably getting a lot more contact from constituents asking why they aren’t protecting their states’ programs,” said Morgan Fox, the communications director for Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group.

There are 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico that allow for medical use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while 9 states and D.C. allow for some type of recreational use. And Idaho and Nebraska, which have no legalization, may have initiatives on their ballots in 2018.

Federal law is a key issue because, while many states have legalized its use in some form, on the federal level it remains illegal, setting up a conflict between state and federal law. For example, Washington D.C. legalized the use of marijuana but the U.S. Capitol Police has said using it in the Capitol building, which is federal property, is a crime.

PHOTO: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, explains to reporters how his negotiations with President Donald Trump broke down during this press conference on Jan. 20, 2018. J.Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, explains to reporters how his negotiations with President Donald Trump broke down during this press conference on Jan. 20, 2018.

On the unofficial marijuana holiday 420, as the date of April 20 is known, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer announced his support for the decriminalization of marijuana at the federal level. He plans to introduce legislation includes provisions to respect state rights and protect children.

“The time has come to decriminalize marijuana,” Schumer said in a statement. “My thinking – as well as the general population’s views – on the issue has evolved, and so I believe there’s no better time than the present to get this done.”

Even his Republican counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, supports legalizing hemp, which can be grown in his home state of Kentucky.

PHOTO: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., smiles as he meets with reporters as work continues on a plan to keep the government as a funding deadline approaches, in Washington, Feb. 6, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., smiles as he meets with reporters as work continues on a plan to keep the government as a funding deadline approaches, in Washington, Feb. 6, 2018.

McConnell’s bill, known as the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, would remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances and allow it to be sold as an agricultural commodity.

"By legalizing hemp and empowering states to conduct their own oversight plans, we can give the hemp industry the tools necessary to create jobs and new opportunities for farmers and manufacturers around the county," McConnell said in a statement last week.

The benefits of both sides’ argument – increased voter turnout and more revenue – can be seen in Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana.

It saw a dramatic change in voting patterns between 2008 and 2012, the year the legalization initiative was on the ballot, according to a study from the Brookings Institute.

In 2008, 17% of self-described liberals voted. That number rose to 28% in 2012. More young people came out too for the initiative: in 2008, 14% of those aged 18 to 29 voted while it was 20% in 2012.

The state saw a boost in revenue too. The cannabis retail market generated $1.51 billion in sales last year and sales have totaled $4.5 billion since it was legalized in 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

The drumbeat on full legalization has been heard across the country, ranging from the small states like Hawaii all the way to New York.

And several Democrats running for office this year have made the issue part of their platform.

At the National Cannabis Summit, Ben Jealous, the former president and CEO of the NAACP and a candidate for Maryland governor, noted legalization was a major part of his criminal justice strategy.

New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon has called for its legalization, which she called a matter of “racial justice” when she spoke to a conference of progressives in Washington D.C. last week.

“We have to stop putting people of color in jail for something white people do with impunity,” she said.

Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, the ACLU reported in a 2013 study.

Even in states like Florida, where medical use is legal, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum pressed for its recreational use, citing the civil rights argument.

In a recent gubernatorial debate, he argued marijuana uses involves “over-criminalization of young people of communities of color.”

In Illinois’ gubernatorial race, Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker said he would sign legislation to legalize marijuana if he wins.

And Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, a longtime supporter of the issue, tweeted about it on 420 day.

Republicans have been joining the conversation.

Some state GOP lawmakers in Michigan, which allows medical usage, are considering allowing personal possession through legislative action instead of a statewide initiative.

The reasoning, reports the Detroit News, are fears the measure would boost Democratic turnout in November.

And former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner surprised political observers last week when he joined the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, one of the nation's largest cannabis corporations, saying "my thinking on cannabis has evolved" and that he now supports changing federal marijuana policy.

There are those who oppose legalization.

Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group said science should guide policy.

“We need to slow this train down, we need to people before profit,” he said a press conference at the National Press Club on Friday. “And we need to get the science out about the truth about marijuana which every day is hurting more people as this country slides deeper into the legalization, really the commercialization of marijuana.”

“We don’t want to lock people up for using marijuana,” he added. “But to against criminalization isn’t to be for legalization.”

The administration will have ultimate authority on the federal legalization of marijuana as President Donald Trump would have to sign any congressional bill into law or set a federal policy initiative.

Some pro-legalization groups saw hope last month with Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., announced he’d spoken to Trump, who agreed to support states’ rights on the issue.

“Since the campaign, President Trump has consistently supported states’ rights to decide for themselves how best to approach marijuana,” Gardner said in a statement. “Furthermore, President Trump has assured me that he will support a federalism-based legislative solution to fix this states’ rights issue once and for all.

These same groups were worried when, in January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a trio of memos from the Obama administration that had a policy of non-interference with states when it came to marijuana use.

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, who is the lead sponsor of the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, criticized Sessions when the decision was originally made. Rohrabacher has touted his support of marijuana in his competitive re-election campaign in a district that includes a lot of the state’s coastline.

“The attorney general of the United States has just delivered an extravagant holiday gift to the drug cartels,” he said in a statement. “By attacking the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly favor marijuana legalization, Jeff Sessions has shown a preference for allowing all commerce in marijuana to take place in the black market, which will inevitably bring the spike in violence he mistakenly attributes to marijuana itself.”

ABC News’ Cheyenne Haslett contributed to this story.

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CComments

  • Stel-1776

    The smartest approach to marijuana begins with honest, accurate, balanced information.

    Nearly every claim by SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) is misleading, disputed or refuted by the scientific community. This makes every monetary claim in their anti-legalization reports groundless for the most part. In their "cost of legalization" reports they do not even attempt to include any data regarding positives of legalization other than predicted tax income. For example, money will be saved from far fewer arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations for sales/possession, yet this data is not factored into their reports. While difficult or impossible to convert into monetary terms, our core beliefs in liberty and freedom are also completely left out of the discussion.

    SAM founders/leaders have strong ties to the addiction treatment industry which will significantly benefit from forced court-related treatment referrals that inevitably occur under prohibition. This is likely part of the reason why they fight legalization.

  • Stel-1776

    Those who believe in limited government, personal responsibility, free markets, and individual liberty should embrace the ending of this irrational, un-American cannabis prohibition. It should be the cornerstone of current GOP policy.

    About half of the U.S. population has tried cannabis, at least 15% use it regularly, over 80% of high school seniors have reported cannabis "easy to get" for decades. Those who really want to use cannabis heavily already are. Prohibition does little or nothing to prevent problematic use. In many cases prohibition makes cannabis usage problematic where it would not have been otherwise, be it light, moderate, or heavy usage. For the most part, cannabis prohibition only successfully prohibits effective regulation.

    A few issues created by prohibition: there are no quality controls to reduce contaminants (harmful pesticides, molds, fungus, other drugs), there is no practical way to prevent regular underage sales, billions in tax revenue are lost which can be used for all substance abuse treatment, underground markets for all drugs are empowered as a far more popular substance is placed within them expanding their reach and increasing their profits, criminal records make pursuing many decent careers difficult, police and court resources are unnecessarily tied up by pursuing and prosecuting victimless 'crimes', public mistrust and disrespect for our legal system, police, and government is increased, which can be devastating to our country.

    Prohibition is also very expensive, though, a cash cow for a number of powerful groups such as those related to law enforcement and the prison industry. These organizations have powerful lobbies and influence that perpetuate a failed drug policy through ignorance, fear, disinformation and misinformation. This ensures an endless supply of lucrative contracts and grants from the government and its taxpayers to support their salaries, tools of the trade, and other expenses. Cash, property and other assets from civil forfeiture laws also significantly fatten their coffers while often violating civil rights.

    America was built on the principles of freedom and liberty. In some cases there are extreme circumstances that warrant intervention with criminal law. In the case of mind-altering drugs we have already set this precedent with alcohol. Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and especially to others. If we are to have justice, then the penalties for using, possessing and selling cannabis should be no worse than those of alcohol.

  • One Man

    The collapse continues.

  • troy

    Blacks are more like to get caught because they Rebel and show what they're doing. Hide it more like whites do. Do your thing in your own living space and remember it has an odor

  • Brad Smith

    First I would like to say: "In your face Jeff Sessions!"

    But second, it makes me sick to see so many ignorant politicians, who were still against legalization as little as a year ago, now come out and see the dollar signs they are missing out on and are now screaming for its legalization like they are some kind of hero to the people. I bet if the public opinion changed towards marijuana tomorrow so would thiers. They can't have thier votes or overinflated salary in danger.

  • Red Hawk

    Marijuana prohibition has always been about racial politics. Nixon's staff admitted that much

  • stephen_420

    Legal like tomatoes

  • John Michael Davis

    INVEST! This is our Apple, our Amazon, our Netflix, it's our time! Invest while prices are cheap! Do your research, learn, invest!

  • bibleexpert

    Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group, said science should guide policy.

    An anti-legalization group, and yet it calls itself "Smart Approaches to Marijuana." Says science should guide policy, and yet opposes legalization. Perhaps we should seriously consider banning whatever drugs Kevin Sabet is taking.

  • kc

    only 1 moron is holding legalization back. #sillyJeffSessions. He cant see past his own alcohol abuse. HE NEEDS TO RETIRE

  • Colinalcarz

    The biggest obstacle to legalization is the effort towards privatization of prisons. Do we really want a profit motive underlying prosecution?

  • tet1953

    I wonder if the prices will ever reflect true cost of production etc, absent the illegality. Weed should probably cost about a tenth of what it does, plus tax of course.

  • Colinalcarz

    Aside from the proven medical benefits of cannibis and various derivatives, the economic benefit of hemp grown in the US both for seeds and it’s many other uses ought to be enough to legalize pot. Some people smoke it for recreational use. This practice is no worse than recreational use of alcohol and probably not as harmful to society. No one should drive or go to work high, common sense.

  • Ack

    So the republicans in Michigan think I'm going to stay home in November if they legalize first? Fat chance.

  • scott steven

    theybetter become more vocalo and more get er done on the 20+cannabis and hemp bills that have been sitting on desks and committees in congress since last spring. With 94% of the voters wanting medical cannabis legalized federally and 64% wanting recreational legalized with Nov 2018 midterm elections coming if they want to keep their seats in congress they better pass these bills including De-scheduling of cannabis decriminalization

  • Bill Toone

    State by state. Texas will be the last. Or maybe Oklahoma. Call it intuition. The conservatives have to beat up on SOMEBODY. Then they will have to find somebody new.

  • Sola Scriptura VI

    I unequivocally reject this push for legalizing marijuana. Marijuana, cannabis, legal drugs, and alcohol may provide that momentary uplift of mood and emotions, but in the long term, there is no overall health benefits to the brain, mind, or the body. Their function is primarily to provide short term relief for specific ailments. From a biological point of reference, some groups have raised concerns, however, that none of these forementioned drugs improve cell condition in the body, but may be deleterious to cell/tissue lining and anatomy. There are much better and healthier alternatives, and these should be explored and utilized above and beyond the use of drugs to enhance mind and body function.

  • Mic123

    OMG the first thing i agree with chuck shimmer on! Will he come out and lament the millions wasted on the war on drugs for the last 40+ years? Will they actually say there is a difference between Heroin and Pot? will they stop mass incarceration for Pot? A glimmer of hope that there is a brain in washington.

  • YellowParrott

    "National legalization of marijuana", yeah, and be careful what you ask for?

  • robert kornhauser

    I can almost guarantee that my adopted southern state will probably be one of the last to legalize marijuana. So, on a recent trip, we visited a marijuana apothicary and bought some delicious chocolates to enjoy at home. Not quite like the old days but about as good as it gets.

  • Joey Meatballs

    Has anyone noticed from this and other stories state that people of color are arrested more than Caucasians for use and this needs to stop. I only see this as a way to generate more black votes.It appears they only care about votes and not the people of America. It's all about votes and money not America

  • Dwight Francis david

    Tax it pay off deficit

  • Tegbessou Géléhéso

    The Marijuana Laws have hurt more people than the plant...

  • ranknfile

    Are the ultra conservatives going to cave?