Why Would One the Most Anti-Drug Democrats in Congress Offer to Endorse Medical Marijuana?

Debbie Wasserman Schultz's flip-flop flier may reflect shifts in public opinion.



Yesterday, as Scott Shackford noted last night, Politico reported that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida representative who chairs the Democratic National Committee, offered to switch positions on medical marijuana if a leading patron of the cause who is also a major Democratic donor took back his criticism of her. If that account is accurate (so far Wasserman Schultz's office is not saying), it shows a lack of principle that is striking even for a politician, since Wasserman Schultz is one of the most anti-drug Democrats in Congress. At the same time, her willingness to fllip-flop may be an encouraging sign that political pressure is finally working against the war on drugs.

Last June, after Wasserman Schultz came out against Amendment 2, a medical marijuana ballot initiative that narrowly failed in November, John Morgan, the trial lawyer who spearheaded and funded the campaign for the measure, told The Miami Herald:

I know personally the most powerful players in Washington, D.C., and I can tell you that Debbie Wasserman Schultz isn't just disliked. She's despised. She's an irritant….Why she's trying to undermine this amendment I don't know. But I'll tell you I will never give a penny or raise a penny for the national party while she's in leadership. And I have given and helped raise millions.

This week Morgan joined other drug policy reformers in opposing Wasserman Schultz's anticipated run for the Senate:

A United States senator from the Democratic Party should be in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana as a base test. Debbie is more severe. Her position denies terminally ill and chronically ill people compassion. She was an anomaly among [Democrats]. The war on drugs was lost about the same time we lost the Vietnam War. Generations have been arrested, jailed and careers and dreams lost forever.

According to an email exchange obtained by Politico (between Morgan and Democratic consultant Ben Pollara), Wasserman Schultz's office responded by offering her support for Morgan's next attempt to legalize medical marijuana, in exchange for his retraction of those comments. Morgan said no.

This episode is especially striking in light of Wasserman Schultz's abysmal record on drug policy. Last October she was one of just five Democrats who received an F in Drug Policy Action's report card on members of the House. The grades were based on seven votes during the 2013–14 session. Wasserman Schultz earned her F by voting against reform six out of seven times: She voted no on an amendment barring the Justice Department from spending money to undermine state medical marijuana laws, no on an amendment barring the DOJ from undermining state laws allowing hemp cultivation, no on an amendment allowing experimental hemp cultivation, no on an amendment barring the Drug Enforcement Administration from interfering with hemp research, no on an amendment cutting the DEA's budget by $35 million, and no on an amendment barring the Treasury Department from penalizing financial institutions that provide services to state-legal marijuana businesses.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) also gives Wasserman Schultz a low grade. On a scale ranging from –30 to +30, with higher scores indicating greater support for reform, she scored –10.

If Wasserman Schultz came out in favor of medical marijuana, it would be a big break from this prohibitionist pattern. One possible reason for such as switch, aside from her desire to placate donors: Public opinion as measured by national polls has long supported medical marijuana and more recently has turned in favor of broad legalization. Even in Florida, a relatively conservative state with more than its share of prohibitionist retirees, 57 percent of voters supported medical marijuana in November, which was three points shy of the supermajority needed for a constitutional amendment. Among Democrats, support was 71 percent. Politicians like Wasserman Schultz are asking for trouble if they do not rethink their blind support for the war on drugs.

Update: Wasserman Schultz denies that she was offering Morgan a quid pro quo. Rather, she says, she wanted to "start a conversation," having seen a revised version of the ballot initiative that she liked better than the one she opposed last year.

Last June, notes Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project, Wasserman Schultz voted against an amendment aimed at stopping the District of Columbia from decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. That vote, which she made as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, was a bit startling, since the previous month she had voted against a floor amendment aimed at preventing federal interference with medical marijuana laws, including the District's. The combination of votes suggests that Wasserman Schultz thinks D.C. should be free to legalize marijuana for recreational use but not for medical use, a position that is hard to understand even if we assume that her views on drug policy really are evolving.