President Biden has chosen a cannabis friendly South Carolina Democrat to lead the DNC, and this will have major implications for federal cannabis policy.
What Has Been the DNC’s Attitude Toward Marijuana Legalization in the Past?
In the past four years, the Trump administration did little to nothing to advance cannabis policy, however the Democratic National Committee itself has been quite lukewarm on the issue of marijuana legalization in the past decade. Jaime Harrison has replaced Tom Presez, who proved himself to be way out of touch with cannabis policy in more ways than one. Perhaps most memorable was a joke that fell flat when he suggested President Trump had gotten high from smoking hemp.
Before Perez, however, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) lead the DNC and had a longstanding record of outright opposing cannabis legalization. The most progressive the DNC has been on the issue has been with its calls for decriminalization, expungements, rescheduling, medical marijuana legalization, and other policies similar to Biden’s stated vision for reform. Wasserman Schultz did surprise constituents in 2020 when she voted in support of an amendment that would provide state-run cannabis programs protection for interference by the federal government.
Harrison Supports Sensible Marijuana Regulation
Jaime Harrison was previously an associate chair and senior counselor at the DNC, hailing from South Carolina, where he previously served as the Democratic Party Chair. Harrison ran for Senate in 2020 but lost to Lindsey Graham, however he garnered national attention during his campaign where he emphasized the need to legalize cannabis:
“I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco,” said Harris in July. “There is simply no medical reason to lock people up over this issue. In essence, this is about common sense.”
“We know that marijuana arrests, including those for simple possession, account for a large number of drug arrests,” Harris said. “The racial disparities in marijuana enforcement—black men and white men smoke marijuana the same rates, but black men are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession—is just unacceptable. Across the country, we are finding that states are legalizing marijuana and medical marijuana, and it’s just time for South Carolina to lead on this issue,” he said.
Jaime has been outspoken about the necessity to legalize marijuana as a means to promote racial justice. One of his 2019 tweet particularly resonated with advocates of marijuana reform:
“The War on Drugs has been a war on people—disproportionately people of color and the poor,” he said.
In an interview last year, Harrison expressed his view that regulations for cannabis policy should mimic those for the alcohol and tobacco industries:
“I believe we need to regulate marijuana just like we do tobacco. I think we need to tax it and make sure that it’s safe. I just think if you look at the science right now—the criminalization—it’s been more harmful to us as a society than not. I think we will do much better to just simply regulate and tax it just like we do alcohol and tobacco. So I’ve been very plain and outspoken on that. I think we have to decriminalize it at this point in time.”
How Biden’s Cannabis Friendly Appointments May Change the Landscape of Legalization
President Joe Biden’s previously expressed views on cannabis legalization appear to be at odds with those of the newly appointed DNC chair, causing many to wonder if this appointment signals a positive future ahead and a new federal stance on marijuana. At the very least, the federal government has been under increasing pressure by marijuana enthusiasts and lawmakers alike to federally deschedule cannabis. Cannabis is currently registered as a Schedule 1 substance in line with heroin and stated as having no medical benefits.
Descheduling marijuana would be an important next step to increasing protections for states with legal medical and recreational cannabis programs and halting the arrests and charges against those for non-violent marijuana possession charges. It is also important to allow the US to compete in the international cannabis marketplace with nations like neighboring Canada. Hopefully there will be many positive developments in the coming months, like descheduling marijuana and passing the SAFE Banking Act to give cannabis businesses the same financial access and taxation benefits as every other business. Time will tell what role Jaime Harrison has to play in reforming American drug policy.
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