Democrat-led marijuana bill spins out of control as election looms

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The momentum for Democrats' marijuana bill has stalled amid testy negotiations over the next coronavirus pandemic stimulus package and pre-election partisan bickering.

Scared by Republicans' weaponization of the legislation, Democrats are now thinking about punting until after Election Day in November.

“In about two weeks, the conversation has gone from 'no problem' to people now doing a stutter step, maybe trying to … avoid this vote altogether,” Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., told Politico on Thursday. "[It] should have been a nonpartisan vote, support on both sides of the aisle.”

MARIJUANA DECRIMINALIZATION VOTE EXPECTED IN HOUSE

Correa is a co-chair of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition and a staunch supporter of cannabis legislation.

While colleagues on Correa's side of the aisle hoped to use the historic Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) — which would remove federal penalties on marijuana — to show legalization would be possible, bipartisan support was not enough to convince Senate Republicans.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. (House Television via AP)

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., swiped at Democrats' efforts, accusing them of prioritizing marijuana over COVID-19 health and economic issues.

Democrats, meanwhile, noted that the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion coronavirus aid package in May while Republicans were unable to muster enough votes to do the same with their own package last week. 

Democrats had presented the MORE Act as a criminal justice reform bill amid protests against racial inequality, noting that a disproportionate number of Black people are arrested on cannabis possession charges each year.

Their bill would create a national database to track offenses, expunge records and counteract the use of excessive force.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday he was "not worried" about the measure, while progressives assert the marijuana vote would help, not hurt, in most congressional races.

“If you're trying to punt it as a result of a political calculation, I disagree with that calculation,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said, according to Politico. Ocasio-Cortez is a co-sponsor of the bill.

"This is an enormously popular policy — not just for our base, but it's also very popular amongst certain parts of registered Republican voters and independent voters. I think this is a win-win-win policy, and I think that we should be doing this before the election," she said.

Talking about marijuana has helped boost voter turnout in the past, and political strategists urge that moderates should see the MORE Act as a way to engage both their Democratic base, young voters and those who remain undecided.

Lawmakers see voting on marijuana ahead of the election as part of a bigger ploy to flip the Senate, but those opposed to legalization say the pandemic is not the right time to push the bill.

Moderates like Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., and Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., point out that the problem doesn't actually lie within the legislation.

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“The focus of constituents — the real call for action, the real unmet needs out there — are emergency relief for the pandemic,” Brown told Politico.

In response, progressives contend the House should be able to juggle two issues at the same time and still pass other pieces of legislation.

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