High(er) focus for Cannabis
Is Congress Ready to Talk about Weed?
Once taboo, marijuana is increasingly a topic in official communications
Drug decriminalization and legalization are on the rise throughout the states. Though a handful of states had decriminalized small amounts of marijuana by the mid 1970s, it was 1996 when California became the first state to permit sales of medical marijuana and by 2009 only 12 others and DC too decided to allow medicinal marijuana consumption. All the while, federal level entities charged with drug enforcement and safety — the DEA and FDA — maintained that Cannabis is a schedule I drug, the highest possible categorizations.
In 2009 I started a living archive project made of all the official e-newsletters sent by sitting members of Congress. At the time I was at NYU completing a PhD program and a served as a teaching assistant for a number of classes. By 2010 the full database was running and I was permitted to recruit undergraduates from these classes as research assistants for my own dissertation topics based on the political communications repository I had just started. To gauge interest I would announce at the start of my sections the sort of data I was working with and questions I was interested in and then allow students to ask questions and we’d peruse the data in real time.
In nearly every class — then and now — I get questions about drug references. Do legislators spend a lot of time talking about the war on drugs? Do members of Congress talk about weed legalization? Who prioritizes this topic more than others? My answers for the first 4–5 years of running this database were pretty consistent, and at first even surprising to me. No, legislators didn’t talk about the war on drugs nearly at all. No, marijuana references were exceedingly rare. Yes, people did write home about opioid abuse and policy proposals, but most other drugs just weren’t an issue of importance.
In the intervening years many more states have decriminalized and allowed for both medicinal and recreational marijuana. In fact now only 6 states — including my home state of Kansas — consider marijuana “fully illegal” aligned with federal guidelines for the drug. Over the past two years as a person living in New York and working in New Jersey, recreational marijuana policies have been debated, passed, stalled, attempted, held up in implementation, and creeping up in media coverage. At the start of the Spring 2021 semester I again held my 5 minute AMA for new students about the data I work with, and not having looked at the 2020 data yet with a specific interest in marijuana, I checked to see if members of Congress had also changed to focus more on cannabis in their communications. They had.
Slowly, but surely more legislators are interesting in engaging on the issue with constituents. And the content of these messages does not neatly fit into a polarized partisan story. Perhaps this is not surprising since even within the American public, marijuana legalization isn’t neatly a Democratic or Republican owned issue.
Research on public opinion has found that between 2004–2016 people were split with Republicans expressing more opposition to legalized marijuana than democrats. Yet, states led by both Democrats and Republicans have implemented pro-cannabis legislation. Within congressional communications there too are overlapping partisan approaches in this issue space.
In the 116th Congress the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act was introduced by New Yorker Jerry Nadler (D) in the House and then Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge marijuana convictions, and impose a tax on marijuana sales. In December 2020, five House Republicans joined 222 Democrats in support of the measure though it was never advanced in the Senate. Though some Republicans offered strong condemnation of the action, such as Rep Dan Bishop (NC) arguing that it would “expose communities to an epidemic of drugged- driving.”
Other Republicans offered their own version of legislation, the Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2019 — by Matt Gaetz (FL) which aimed to ensure a sufficient supply of research-quality marijuana through the National Institute on Drug Abuse Drug Supply Program. This bill received no action in the House, but does signal an interest on the right side of the aisle. Additionally, legislators are increasingly feeling comfortable asking constituents directly about a topic that was taboo just 10 years ago.
This is not to say Republicans and Democrats always use the same frames when writing about marijuana. While Democrats have posed the issue as one of equity and business opportunities some Republicans still consider efforts to federally legalize marijuana as a distraction from policy spaces they deem more pressing. During the 116th Congress some members of the GOP derided efforts to legislate on anything other than COVID-19.
Cannabis has risen as a topic of interest, though compared to other substances discussed in official congress to constituent communications, fentanyl, heroin, and prescription opioids marijuana is still a greater priority in official communications.
Yet there are signs this increased focus in 2020 may very well continue into 2021 as the Democratically controlled congress has more leverage to consider legislation aligned with their own priorities. Representative Earl Blumenauer has held out hope that there would be federal movement to legalize marijuana and even threw in some nice wordplay. In recalling a constituent question in a January 29, 2021 e-newsletter he wrote,
Do you think we will be able to legalize marijuana finally? We ended the last Congress on a high note, passing the MORE Act that I’ve been working on for years, that would fully legalize. We passed legislation to have safe banking, even research…We’re optimistic that we’ll get the job done this year.
Given the cross party interest in marijuana legalization, federal action on this issue may be a consensus win that shows congress can do something that even the most divided parts of the US agree about. It also wouldn’t hurt if federal legislation directed any tax revenues to address the inequitable treatment of Black and brown Americans who are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites for possession and use of cannabis. Having a mismatch of state policies makes doing business much harder even in places where marijuana has been made legal. Finally, a federal approach to marijuana would make provide for much needed consistency for both people and law enforcement across the entire US. At a time when states are deciding different policy approaches to COVID-19 restrictions with varying successes, a federal style implementation on cannabis might be a great way to show how federal approval and coordination is desirable in some policy spaces.