Biden missing opportunity on legalizing marijuana, advocates warn

Cannabis advocates say President Biden is missing an opportunity to sway young voters with his reluctance to take bigger steps to legalize marijuana at the federal level.

The Biden administration has opened several avenues for marijuana reform including issuing federal pardons for simple possession and starting the process of potentially rescheduling marijuana’s status under the Controlled Substances Act from Schedule I to Schedule III.

But those measures have failed to excite advocates, who say Biden is falling short of his 2020 campaign promises and failing to address the disparate overcriminalization of the drug that has unduly impacted minority communities.

Progressive lawmakers in the Senate are urging the administration to go further and completely deschedule the drug, which would effectively decriminalize it at the federal level, as opposed to rescheduling it, which would reduce penalties and restrictions.

“Marijuana’s placement in the [Controlled Substances Act] has had a devastating impact on our communities and is increasingly out of step with state law and public opinion,” 12 Democratic lawmakers wrote to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) last month.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told The Hill that rescheduling would be better than the “status quo” but still “vastly less than what we need from the federal government and where the public at large is.”

“It’s a popular issue that’s up for grabs for whatever candidate is willing to listen to the people on it,” O’Keefe added.

Public opinion is strongly in favor of marijuana legalization. A Gallup poll from November found a record 70 percent of Americans believed marijuana should be legal.

More recent polling from Lake Research Partners backs up public support for federal marijuana reform, with 58 percent supporting a rescheduling to Schedule III, compared to 19 percent who opposed the move.

“It’s a really strong issue with some constituencies that Democrats really need to increase their support and enthusiasm, specifically young people, African Americans, Democratic base voters, people of color, young men of color,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist who serves as president of Lake Research Partners.

Hayley Matz Meadvin, executive vice president of communications at Precision Strategies and a former Biden administration staffer, noted the “supermajority of support” behind marijuana legalization could help Biden lure in voters across the political spectrum.

“This is a popular issue that motivates voters, and it doesn’t just motivate — it clearly just doesn’t motivate [exclusively] Democrats. And … that will be critical this fall,” Meadvin said.

Biden and Trump, his likely 2024 rival, are polling neck and neck both nationally and in key swing states. The election could come down to a few thousand voters in those states, potentially giving niche issues such marijuana added importance.

While campaigning for the White House in 2020, Biden said, “No one should be in jail because of marijuana. As President, I will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.”

Advocates say his actions so far fall short of that promise. And they said he may struggle to clearly communicate any progress on marijuana reform, especially as some actions are left unfinished; the DEA has yet to issue its decision on rescheduling marijuana, and the federal pardons issued last year could not apply to state-level convictions, though Biden has encouraged governors to follow his lead.

“The actions need to be finalized. I mean, it needs to be rescheduled. It needs to be reclassified,” Lake said. “You can definitely run on, ‘I am the one who ordered the DEA and the Department of Justice to reclassify it.’”

When reached for comment, a White House spokesperson told The Hill: “The President has been clear for a long time that our nation’s marijuana laws are outdated and are failing communities, particularly communities of color. His campaign commitment was to do what he can to ensure that no one is in jail for marijuana possession alone. And he’s taken historic actions to achieve that.”

The DEA, when reached for comment, said there was no update regarding its evaluation of marijuana scheduling.

While marijuana reform may not be among the issues expected to dominate the 2024 elections — abortion rights, the economy and immigration among them — strategists such as Meadvin note that smaller issues frequently break through the noise during election cycles.

“There are a lot of competing interests during every election — and there certainly were last year as well, and this issue broke through in Ohio. It has broken through in states across the country, and it will continue to do so,” Meadvin said.

According to Lake, substantial marijuana reform action from Biden would signal to voters he is a “modern president” and could make a difference in states including Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin.

“I would restate how strong this is to couple with criminal justice reform,” Lake said. “I think that it’s not just one step; it’s a whole schema and can be coupled with criminal justice, can be coupled with what he said to states. And I think the whole bundle is a very, very strong message to young people.”

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