Pot legalization in the U.S. seems both inevitable and impossible

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Some top Democrats in the Senate, led by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, unveiled a proposal earlier this month to end the federal prohibition of marijuana and expunge the records of those with nonviolent pot-related offenses. The bill faces steep odds of passing through a divided Congress, but the simple fact that some of the most prominent lawmakers in Washington have backed the plan shows how dramatically views on pot have changed in a short period of time.

Over the past two decades, marijuana legalization has transformed from a fringe issue to one that a substantial majority of Americans embrace. In 2000, less than a third of the public said pot should be legal for recreational use, compared with nearly 70 percent today. That swing in public opinion has coincided with changes to laws across the country. Until 2012, recreational pot use was banned in all 50 states. It’s now allowed in 18 states and Washington, D.C. Almost half of the U.S. population lives in a jurisdiction where marijuana is legal. A total of 36 states and D.C. have also legalized medical marijuana.

Despite how rapidly the tide has shifted at the state level, little has changed in national marijuana policy. Pot remains illegal under federal law and is still classified as a Schedule I drug, a category reserved for narcotics with no medical uses and a high potential for abuse, like heroin. This patchwork of laws has allowed a multibillion-dollar marijuana industry to explode in parts of the country while other Americans sit in prison for cannabis-related crimes.

The push to legalize marijuana nationally has gained the backing of a large share of Democratic lawmakers. But the party’s most powerful member, President Biden, is less enthusiastic. He said during the 2020 campaign that he supports decriminalizing pot — a change that would remove criminal penalties for possession while keeping the federal ban in place — but opposes outright legalization. When asked this month whether the president would back Schumer’s proposal, press secretary Jen Psaki said that “nothing has changed” about Biden’s views on marijuana.

Why there’s debate

The disconnect in the pace of change for marijuana laws, with legalization spreading at breakneck speed in the states and all but stalled at the federal level, has raised debate over when — if ever — marijuana might become legal nationwide.

Many experts say legalization is inevitable, even if it may not happen right away. They argue that progress in the states, including successful ballot measures in red states like Montana and Alaska, shows that pro-pot attitudes are only becoming stronger. Eventually, they say, that sentiment will reach a point where Congress will have no choice but to take action. Legalization also has the backing of criminal justice advocates and an increasingly influential cannabis industry, two groups that can apply pressure on lawmakers that recreational smokers haven’t been able to in the past. Legal experts say there’s also a chance that the Supreme Court could invalidate federal marijauna laws if given the opportunity, a move hinted at in a recent opinion by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.

Others are more skeptical. They say that Biden, who spearheaded many of the country’s harsh drug laws during his time in the Senate, is unlikely to swing all the way to supporting full legalization. Congress could theoretically force his hand, but it’s not clear whether the idea has the backing of all 50 Senate Democrats, let alone the 10 Republicans who would be needed to overcome a likely GOP filibuster.

As popular as the idea of legalization is with the public, few Americans would argue it’s one of the most important issues for Congress to address. That lack of urgency could mean drug law reform keeps getting put on the back burner even though most of the country would like to see it happen. Some pundits even believe the issue could lose support if Democrats made a more aggressive push toward legalization, since many Republicans would instinctively reject anything supported by the opposing party.

What’s next

One of the unanswered questions about pot in politics is just how much a candidate’s position influences voters’ choices, since even pro-pot candidates haven't typically made the issue a core part of their campaign pitch. Next year’s Senate race in Pennsylvania could prove to be a revealing test case. The state’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has made marijuana one of the centerpiece elements of his platform. If his message proves compelling to voters, it could inspire others to follow his lead in future elections.

Perspectives

Nationwide legalization is inevitable

“At this point, the question of nationwide marijuana legalization is more a matter of when, not if. … The walls are closing in on this issue for legalization opponents — and quickly.” — German Lopez, Vox

It makes no sense for the federal government to write pot laws for the whole country

“The states already have gone their own ways on this issue, and there is room for federalist diversity: There isn’t any reason that San Antonio has to do things the same way Denver does. (You can hear San Antonio cheering from here.) When it comes to marijuana everybody already sees this, and it is time for federal law to reflect the actual situation in the states.” — Kevin D. Williamson, National Review

Political winds could push Biden to shift his stance on legalization

“The current political and policy environments position Mr. Biden to buck his age, his history, and expectations about his presidency to craft cannabis reform that helps reverse decades of injustice and enhances his standing with the precise electoral groups he needs to be a successful president.” — John Hudak, Brookings

Few Americans see pot legalization as a top priority for the country

“Keep in mind that marijuana simply isn't a top issue for most of the public. … The fact is that marijuana laws do not have a great effect on many Americans. Most people don't smoke marijuana.” — Harry Enten, CNN

Before pot can become legal, Congress needs a consensus on how to get it done

“Most congressional Democrats say it is time to end a federal prohibition on marijuana, and a growing number of Republicans agree. … But that energy is not enough to change the law. Lawmakers don't see eye to eye on how to legalize cannabis, and businesses are stuck in the middle of the debate.” — Callum Borchers, NPR

The GOP isn’t going to let marijuana become legal

“Marijuana’s popularity boom in red states isn’t breaking through with conservatives on Capitol Hill, pinching an already narrow path to federal legalization.” — Natalie Fertig, Politico

Even without nationwide change, new laws in the states are a massive step forward

“For now, our national venture into legal recreational cannabis is young and only partial — and so far, it’s only a partial success. That beats complete prohibition, which was a complete failure.” — Steve Chapman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Biden has political incentive to stay out of pot politics

“Yes, adult-use cannabis is now legal in all of the country’s biggest cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Biden can keep that status quo intact without angering law-enforcement lobbies or social conservatives of the kind that Democratic strategists still believe are necessary to win votes in places like Georgia, Texas, and South Florida. On drugs, Biden came just as advertised.” — Chris Roberts, Forbes

Lawmakers understand that marijuana isn’t as safe as proponents claim

“There is plenty of common ground on the issue of cannabis. People generally agree on ending overly harsh punishments for its use and possession and removing obstacles to non-psychotropic cannabis products such as hemp. But it is a delusion that marijuana is a safe substance for recreational use and that the federal government should stop worrying about its trafficking.” — Editorial, Washington Examiner

The Supreme Court could throw out federal pot laws

“Justice Thomas’s statement hints at the possibility that the Supreme Court would hear a case that tees up the constitutional issue for a landmark decision.” — Editorial, Orange County Register

The idea of the court legalizing pot nationwide is far-fetched

“As exciting as it is to have a Justice of the Supreme Court write these words, until Justice Thomas gains support from other Justices, federal marijuana liberalization is going to have to come from the Attorney General or Congress not the Supreme Court.” — David S. Cohen, Rolling Stone

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