Federal Marijuana Policy: When Will Real Change Come?

This story from Politico popped up on my news feed earlier. A few U.S. senators on both sides of the aisle have sponsored legislation that would protect medical marijuana states from federal enforcement and would give banks legal protections as they deal with the cannabis industry. Public opinion continues to shift in favor of legalization across the board, and even states where we would think marijuana legalization would poll poorly can surprise us. Relaxation of federal criminal law for medical marijuana and banks is among the least controversial of changes currently being pushed for in the cannabis space. The Politico story continues to show that despite positive movement in public opinion, the old guard in the Senate remains largely against legalization. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over criminal legislation, is the gatekeeper for these bills, and the Judiciary Committee is full of the dinosaurs that are unwilling to roll with public opinion on the cannabis issue.

Marijuana PoliticsIt’s great that we have at least some Senators, who tend to be higher profile and more centrist as a whole than members of the House of Representatives, pushing for change, but it is discouraging that they still seem to be spinning their wheels. My question — do we have hope for actually changing some minds on this issue, or are we really just waiting for these people to get voted out of office, retire, or die before we can move forward with reasonable reform?

Successfully changing opinions is not out of the question. Marijuana criminality has some social movement commonalities with state bans on gay marriage. These are issues where in the twentieth century, “reasonable minds” differed on the right answer, but the twenty-first century has clarified that one side is unequivocally right and the other side is absolutely wrong. Mass-produced, über-commercial marijuana may or may not be favorable from a policy perspective, but we have passed the intelligence threshold where reasonable thinking people can say that it is a good idea for someone to go to jail for possessing marijuana. They cannot say that and still be considered reasonable thinking people. It is also no longer reasonable to allow alcohol to be legal pretty much everywhere, and yet keep marijuana illegal and stigmatized.

With gay marriage, we did see high profile flip-flops. Republican Senator Rob Portman changed his mind when his son came out. Mark Kirk, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins followed suit. This led to a cascade effect, where Democrats, not looking to get outflanked on the left, started announcing in droves that they also supported gay marriage. Oftentimes when politicians change their stance on an issue, it isn’t about “evolving” at all. Many of them already supported the issue, but they wait until the political winds are blowing more strongly in its favor before they announce their actual positions. Soon after Rob Portman announced his support for it, more than half the Senate was on record approving of gay marriage (that number decreased a bit after the 2014 midterms, but no one thinks that vote was about gay marriage support).

If a few high profile Senators move on the issue, it could provide cover for a tectonic shift among other legislators. Senator Gillibrand was successful last year in changing the minds of many of her colleagues on her legislation reforming military sexual assault investigations, so let’s hope that she can be similarly successful on this issue.