Marijuana advocates at DNC see big moment for legalization

Delegates to vote Wednesday on weed reform

PHILADELPHIA - The Democratic Party is poised to put marijuana on its party platform for the first time in history and pro-legalization groups and some members of Congress are overjoyed.

“This is the year that this issue crests. I’ve been working on it a long time,” said Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who has been a vocal supporter for marijuana reform for years. “We’ve had six pro-cannabis votes on the floor of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives [this year], so I’m optimistic.”

Marijuana lobbies and members of Congress who have supported marijuana reform and legalization for decades are now seeing the issue morph from what once was considered a fringe idea, to a national issue that now has 61 percent of public support for legalization — 70 percent of Democrats support legalization.

“It used to be that there was not a lot of movement on marijuana policies on the federal level because there wasn’t enough support and we are now at the point where we are just like every other issue,” said Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization lobby. “There’s stronger support in the public than ever for ending marijuana prohibition, for adopting my sensible laws.”

The party plank language is broader than many advocates would like, though. Many argue that re-scheduling marijuana or taking it off of the Controlled Substances Act entirely is the necessary next step. Nevertheless, the language is a step in the right direction and many expect it to be adopted Wednesday night on the convention floor.

Currently it reads: “We believe that the states should be laboratories of democracy on the issue of marijuana, and those states that want to decriminalize marijuana should be able to do so. We support policies that will allow more research to be done on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty. And we recognize our current marijuana laws have had an unacceptable disparate impact, with arrest rates for marijuana possession among African-Americans far outstripping arrest rates among whites despite similar usage rates.”

To celebrate, marijuana groups are hosting events all week long. The Philadelphia branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws started Monday by marching a 51-foot inflatable marijuana joint from Philadelphia City Hall to the Wells Fargo Center, site of the DNC. Some supporters also will stop for a “flash toke” at 4:20 p.m. Additionally groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project are holding fundraisers and meet-ups to spread the word of reform.

The change in public sentiment surrounding marijuana stems from two other policy changes. One is the successful legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Oregon, and the other is the recent change in sentiment and policies surrounding criminal justice reform.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and numerous studies showing direct links between marijuana criminalization and disproportionate African-American arrests and incarceration, marijuana legalization and justice system reform are frequently considered an intertwined issue.

Bernie Sanders made marijuana an important issue in his presidential campaign, and it’s because of him that some say marijuana made it onto the DNC platform this year.

“What you are seeing behind the scenes is the Sanders campaign fighting to have all of their party platforms adopted and they are winning, for the most part. They are, at least on marijuana,” said Chris Goldstein, communications director of Philadelphia’s NORML chapter. “Most marijuana consumers are Bernie Sanders supporters. He really brought out the message.”

But Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, not Sanders, and advocates remain mixed as to whether she ultimately will be a true supporter of the policies. She’s never admitted to smoking weed—like Obama has—and reform wasn’t a key component of her campaign, but advocates seem to conclude she’s good enough.

“I’ve had a couple of conversations with Secretary Clinton and with her policy people. I know she knows it’s not rational that legal marijuana businesses shouldn’t have bank accounts, which is huge,” Blumenauer said, adding that Clinton agreed with him about the need to increase marijuana research, and that states should be in control of their own drug laws. “I am convinced that the Clinton administration could be as good or better than the Obama administration. And the Obama administration was the best in history on this.”

“Every indication that we have is that she’s fully supportive of allowing access to medical marijuana, and fully supportive of states adopting laws that regulate use for adults and broader use,” agreed Tvert of MPP, “which is certainly as strong if not stronger than the current administration.”

Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, also a long-time legalization advocate, seemed less convinced of Clinton’s role. When asked if he thought she would be a good messenger for the pro-legalization movement, he avoided the question, instead saying it’s going to come down to Congress.

“I think that the Democrats in congress will be largely responsible for the action that’s taken and the more Democrats in the Congress the better we are,” he said.

The Republicans considered adopting marijuana legislation in their party platform last week, but ultimately did not. Republican nominee Donald Trump has voiced support for marijuana legalization from time to time, but marijuana lobbies avoided the RNC.

“If the national Baptist convention was holding its annual conference in California, it still doesn’t mean it’s a great opportunity to raise money because all of the Baptists wouldn’t want to support legalization,” Tvert said.

Cohen used just as colorful language to describe the dismissal of the RNC, “If you wanted to eat steak, you go to Ruth’s Chris, you wouldn’t go to the Hungry Fisher. There would be no one there who would be too interested,” he said. “The Republican convention looked like 1953 in Kansas.”

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