Once upon a time, cannabis was one of the most divisive issues in the nation. Since well before federal prohibition in 1937, cannabis—or “marihuana”—was seen either as a corrupter of young Americans’ moral fiber and a mainline to a life of violent crime or as a beneficial, all-natural antidote to an increasingly commercialized, authoritarian state predicated on a dominant military-industrial complex.
Nowadays—thankfully!—things are a bit different. An overwhelming 88% of Americans support the legalization of medical cannabis, and a strong plurality (some 61%) favor decriminalization of recreational cannabis.
But if we as a nation have banded together on the subject of cannabis legalization, in other ways, the country feels as politically polarized as ever. Kind of makes us wonder: If so many of us agree on the benefits of cannabis, could it be a way of bringing us together as a nation? And some high-profile (no pun intended) politicians are asking the very same question.
An Ambitious Democratic Proposal
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is by any measure a rising star on the national stage. Formerly the mayor of troubled Newark, New Jersey, he earned his Senate seat in a special election in 2013. He’s seen as a bipartisan problem-solver with a focus on urban policy and criminal justice reform.
This August, Booker unveiled his proposal for legal cannabis, the Marijuana Justice Act. In addition to decriminalizing cannabis for all uses at the federal level, it’s designed to incentivize states to reform cannabis policies that have disproportionately affected citizens of color—on average, African-Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis offenses, despite roughly equal rates of use as whites—and have judges retroactively review past cannabis convictions.
A Republican-Led Return to States’ Rights
Meanwhile, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is another rising star of the Senate. At 54, he’s only a few years older than Senator Booker and comes from a proud Libertarian heritage (his father, Ron Paul, represented Texas in Congress and sought the Presidency three times in his long career).
The younger Paul approaches the issue of cannabis legalization from a different angle than Booker: The reliable Republican plank of states’ rights over those of the federal government. Essentially bypassing the question of whether or not federal laws should be rewritten, the CARERS Act proposed that, in essence, the laws of those states that opted to decriminalize cannabis should take precedence over federal statutes.
Cannabis Law: A Hard Row to Hoe, but Hope for the Future?
Regardless of the merits of these approaches, members of the current Administration have signaled their desire to crack down on cannabis, despite candidate Trump’s pledge to leave the question up to states.
But while the Republican-led Congress shows no signs of picking up the issue, the Booker and Rand plans—even if they have little chance of passage—are a hopeful sign that cannabis will be an important issue in the 2020 election. And even now, some unlikely players are pushing for cannabis law reform behind the scenes. Who knows what the future holds for cannabis in this country? Given the last few years, it’s safe to say that all bets are off.