To see Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer share a stage with Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a rare sight these days. Barring a national tragedy that forces D.C.’s top politicians to play nice, the two haven’t found much in the way of common ground in years.
However, on Friday, May 4, Schumer stood alongside McConnell as the former announced his intent to become a co-sponsor of McConnell’s industrial hemp bill. The fact that McConnell is even championing a bill on hemp — a product also derived from the cannabis sativa plant — is something of a shock. The Kentucky Republican’s motives aren’t hard to discern, though: Domestic hemp production is a potentially lucrative industry that farming-driven states like Kentucky would love to get in on.
Still, the partnership between the New York Democrat and the Kentucky Republican on a cannabis-related issue speaks to a deeper fact: Politicians are realizing that being on the wrong side of pot may soon cost them a chance at re-election.
In fact, Schumer has taken things even further. He went all-in on marijuana reform with a comically timed April 20 proclamation that he’ll push for the decriminalization of cannabis. Schumer is hardly the first senator to promise a legalization bill, but he’s certainly one of the most high-profile figures to support the effort.
His predecessors, who include Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), now gain a vital ally in their efforts to have cannabis removed from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances. Booker also added a sizeable supporter in Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who joined the former’s Marijuana Justice Act as a co-sponsor on April 19.
For his part, Schumer has now taken to the press to solidifying his newfound stance.
“The time has come to decriminalize marijuana,” he declared during a recent interview with Vice News Tonight.
In truth, that time arrived some time ago, but the cannabis industry is likely willing to forgive the delay if it means their access to comprehensive banking, insurance policies, and other basic staples of economic infrastructure may at long last become reality.
For those who have seen similar pledges go unfulfilled and now greet Schumer’s actions with apprehension, perhaps they will find the recent exploits of former House Speaker John Boehner more convincing. In April, the Republican leader — who as recently as 2011 labeled himself as “unalterably opposed” to legalizing marijuana — announced he was joining the advisory board of cannabis company Acreage Holdings.
Speaking with The New York Times, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) executive director Erik Altieri suggested Boehner’s pot pivot was “really just a sign of the times in terms of where the American public is going.” While the court of public opinion has certainly made its views known on cannabis — the latest numbers from Pew Research Center indicate 61 percent of the U.S. population current favors legalization— there’s likely another kind of green motivating these changes of heart.
After all, cannabis is hardly the only subject to dominate headlines in the past 12 months. Where are the comprehensive reforms on gun control? Why haven’t McConnell and Schumer handed over a new bill to address the rampant and systemic sexual violence perpetrated against women? Certainly the rise of the #MeToo movement and the inspiring advocacy of Emma Gonzalez and her fellow survivors of February’s horrific shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School have attracted our focus as much as the issues surrounding cannabis reform.
Why has cannabis formed a bridge between foes while other issues remain in bureaucratic purgatory? The answer, of course, is simple dollars and cents. In Boehner’s case, he sees the profits to be made by aligning with a cannabis corporation with a presence in 11 states. In McConnell’s case, hemp is a backdoor issue that keeps him on the right side of cannabis without alienating any constituents who may still be mired in the myths of long-standing stigmas. In Schumer’s case, his road to cannabis salvation is paved with political ambition.
The details of the path forward will likely go unscrutinized if the end result means national legalization. However, being conscious of the motivations that lead to change is vital if we hope to make that change last. With money to be made and votes to be won, it’s not hard to see why many politicians are embracing the green rush. What remains to be seen is who will still be there when the smoke clears—have our country’s leaders truly changed their tune on cannabis, or will they only embrace the movement as long as there’s a high to ride?
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
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