Social media has been abuzz with excitement for the last few months as cannabis enthusiasts prepare for a major federal sea change in marijuana policy. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has done the unthinkable and promised legalization at the federal level.
Hippies sleep soundly in their beds, nestled in the assurance that the War On Marijuana will soon be over. The cadence of their snoring is easy and relaxed; their dreams are unperturbed.
But for some of us—traumatized and weakened by years of sour grapes and empty promises—federal legalization won’t be believable until about a week after it’s passed. Even then, we probably won’t buy it until our bookie calls to inform us of a hedge win.
In a recent appearance at the NYC Cannabis Parade, Schumer spoke to a crowd gathered to celebrate the recent legalization of recreational cannabis in New York. There, he committed to introducing legislation that will legalize recreational cannabis at the federal level.
“We’re going to put forward advanced, comprehensive cannabis reform legislation that will not only turn the page on this sad chapter in American history, but undo the devastating consequences of these discriminatory and often bigoted policies,” he said.
Schumer says he’s working on a bill with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) but has yet to release any details on its contents. We only know of its (supposed) existence thanks to press appearances and public announcements like the uncomfortable video released by Booker in which the three lawmakers talked about the disproportionate number of Black Americans locked up for cannabis offenses.
In fact that’s been the sole point hit again and again by Schumer during interviews: Cannabis reform must address equity and the damage done to lower-income and minority communities. Any other details are lacking and imply that the bill’s focus will be on decriminalization and expungement.
Never Trust a Politician
But for political junkies, the meat of the bill isn’t even the hot topic yet. Currently, our overriding question is “Why now?” Schumer is a career politician who has been slinking around the halls of Congress since the ’80s, interrupting people mid-sentence and being a self-described “angry centrist.” He’s had plenty of chances to champion the cause of cannabis law reform, but it’s never been in his interest.
Schumer has never been able to pass for a progressive. He was a self-styled “law and order Democrat” during the heyday of minimum sentencing and mass incarceration, helping push through then-Senator Joe Biden’s controversial 1994 Crime Bill—which ultimately led to harsher penalties for cannabis use and locked up many of the people he now wants to set free.
But now he’s completely flipped, becoming a staunch progressive with a hip new viewpoint. The change didn’t just apply to cannabis either. Suddenly he’s supporting student debt cancellation, climate justice and signaling a willingness to consider tossing the filibuster.
He says he’s evolving to fulfill the needs of his constituents. In a 2018 Medium article written by Schumer, the Senate majority leader said he changed his mind on cannabis “after much thought and very careful consideration.” Most likely, he saw some AOC tweets start trending and got nervous about his career potential.
“When looking at the support for legalization that clearly exists across wide swaths of the American population, it is difficult to make sense of our existing laws,” Schumer wrote. He fails to mention his role in those laws, of course.
The Biden Problem
But let’s just assume for the moment that Schumer is completely on the up-and-up and his intentions are as golden as his voice. How likely are we to see legalization under the Biden administration? President Biden has never shown support for legalization. In March White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that he hasn’t changed his mind.
He also hasn’t openly shown support for decriminalization, despite the administration’s supposed focus on the matter. Vice President Kamala Harris made promises on the campaign trail, but told reporters recently that the president was too busy to deal with it right now. It’s likely he’ll always be “too busy.” This ain’t our first rodeo.
Schumer told reporters that he doesn’t care what Biden thinks. “I want to make my arguments to him, as many other advocates will,” Schumer said in an interview with Politico. “But at some point we’re going to move forward, period.”
So it looks like the nation is firmly on the track and headed toward legalization.
“Right, but it only serves us if we firmly hold the feet of these politicians to the fire,” says world-famous legalization advocate and Chairman Emeritus of California-based Harborside Inc., Steve DeAngelo. “They have to learn that when they make a promise and break it to us—like the Biden administration is breaking it to us—that there are consequences.”
At the beginning of this month, DeAngelo shared a stage with Schumer in New York City for the Cannabis Parade. I talked to DeAngelo last week about his work at the Last Prisoner Project and asked for his opinion on Schumer’s dedication to cannabis reform. “I’m grateful for the support from Senator Schumer. He’s in a very powerful position, and he can really help advance our agenda,” he said. “And if he will do that, I will heartily support him, because I’m a one-issue guy. … But I’m watching. And watching carefully. I will reach out, and I will shake hands, and I will welcome, and I will support anybody who stands by us. And I will call them out the minute they depart from that support.”