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EXCLUSIVE: With new Congressional Cannabis Caucus leaders, a more nuanced look at marijuana reform

By Brandon A. Dorfman
Jan 10, 2019

On Wednesday the Congressional Cannabis Caucus announced a new team of Co-Chairs, adding Reps. Barbara Lee of California and David Joyce of Ohio along with founding members Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Don Young of Alaska. They take over seats vacated by departing Congresspersons Jared Polis, D-Col., and Dana Rohrbacher, R-Cal.

In a statement, NORML praised the new leadership team in Washington for both their bipartisanship, with both Lee and Blumenauer being Democrats and Joyce and Young being Republicans, as well as for its diversity, something the committee sorely lacked in previous incarnations.

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"Rep. Barbara Lee brings much-needed diversity to the Caucus’s leadership, as she will become the first woman and first African-American to serve as co-chair,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal in a statement. “A longtime champion of reform efforts, Rep. Lee introduced the Marijuana Justice Act in the last Congress which received the highest number of cosponsorships of any legislation that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act in history."

Similarly, Strekal praised the addition of Joyce, who brings a unique perspective to the Caucus as well. According to a statement released by NORML, he’s the first leader to come from a state that has yet to pass adult-use cannabis legislation.

Joyce introduced the STATES Act into Congress, the much-ballyhooed bipartisan legislation that takes a states’ rights approach to marijuana legalization. The proposed legislation has the support of Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, herself a 2020 Presidential contender. However, despite Gardner’s assertion that the bill has the votes to pass in Congress, it’s not moved over the past year, with Sen. Chuck Grassley killing Gardner’s latest attempt to bring the legislation to a vote.

"We look forward to continuing to work with the growing group of congressional allies who join the Cannabis Caucus to end federal marijuana criminalization once and for all," added Strekal in his statement.

Unlike across the globe, the movement to legalize cannabis in the United States has been more localized, a patchwork of state laws that has left half the population not only without access to legal cannabis but also under threat of criminal prosecution. It’s a political game of incremental progress that, while at times slow, does currently seem to be the best way forward, if not, at time strange.

“Since the initial launch of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus we’ve seen an exponential growth in interest, legislation, and membership many would not have expected,” said Young in a statement. “The idea of States’ Rights has been a central tenet of this movement and one that I believe will ultimately carry the day. I encourage all Members to join us in this debate and explore the varying issues.”

A more nuanced look at cannabis reform

The idea of states’ rights, a decidedly conservative notion that brings about images of power struggles throughout history as the backbone of a more liberal movement such as cannabis reform may make some uneasy, but as Strekal noted, a federal law legalizing cannabis wouldn’t automatically make it accessible to all Americans.

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“There is no effective way for the federal government to mandate that all states implement a commercial market for the production and distribution of cannabis, leaving the legislative pathway forward to be the removal of federal marijuana prohibition to free states to implement laws regulating a potential marketplace as they see fit,” Strekal said in an exclusive interview with PotNetwork.

He continued: “The Congress could use nudging tools to facilitate a move towards state-legalization, such as grant incentives for job creation or fiscal penalties for the currently enforced racially disparate arrest rates of marginalized communities, elements like we see in Sen. Schumer’s Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act or Sen. Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, as these would follow the trajectory that we saw with the end of alcohol prohibition.”

Still, federal legalization is the ultimate goal. And while Blumenauer's "Blueprint to Legalize Marijuana" may lead the new Democratic Congress’ efforts throughout the next year, bipartisanship is the ultimate key to success.

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