Today Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that he will introduce legislation aimed at repealing the federal ban on marijuana by removing it from the list of controlled substances. The New York Democrat, who telegraphed his plan in a Vice interview that aired last night, says "there's no better time than the present to get this done."
I disagree. The past would have been a much better time. Schumer's cannabis conversion—which comes after that of former House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who not long ago was describing himself as "unalterably opposed" to legalization—is embarrassingly tardy. Democratic politicians like Schumer have always been lagging indicators of public opinion on this issue, especially compared to rank-and-file members of their own party.
According to the most recent Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal. That includes 51 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats. Opposition to pot prohibition first broke 50 percent in 2011, when 57 percent of Democrats thought marijuana should be legal. But Schumer, like most Democrats in Congress, has been biding his time.
Schumer, who was honored as a "Guardian of a Drug-Free America" by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in 2004, brags that has "spent his legislative career supporting local law enforcement" and "working to keep drugs off our streets." That includes pseudoephedrine, a cheap and effective allergy medication that Schumer targeted for restriction because it can be used to make methamphetamine, as well as myriad synthetic drugs covered by federal bans that Schumer has championed. The dedicated drug warrior also has supported longer sentences for meth offenses.
Given that background, it's not surprising that Schumer came late to the marijuana reform movement. In 2014, two years after voters in Colorado and Washington approved legalization, Schumer affirmed that states should be allowed to adopt that policy, although he was not sure it was a good idea. "It's a tough issue," he said on MSNBC. "We talk about the comparison to alcohol, and obviously alcohol is legal and I'm hardly a prohibitionist, but it does a lot of damage. The view I have, and I'm a little cautious on this, is let's see how the state experiments work." In 2015, nearly two decades after California became the first state to legalize medical use of cannabis, Schumer backed the CARERS Act, which would eliminate federal penalties for conduct that complies with state medical marijuana laws.
The bill Schumer plans to introduce would extend that accommodation to states where marijuana is legal for recreational use, although the feds could still prosecute people for bringing marijuana into states where it remains illegal. It is not the first bill with that aim.
In 2011 Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which would repeal the federal ban except as it relates to interstate smuggling. The latest version has 33 cosponsors, including 27 Democrats.
The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, first introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in 2013, would make the marijuana provisions of the Controlled Substances Act inapplicable to "any person acting in compliance with State laws relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marihuana." The latest version has 45 cosponsors, including 31 Democrats.
In 2015 Bernie Sanders, the first major-party presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization, became the first U.S. senator to propose a bill repealing the federal ban on marijuana. His Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act attracted zero cosponsors. Last year Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which like Schumer's planned bill would deschedule cannabis. It has attracted three cosponsors: Sanders, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Democrats in the Senate have been especially reluctant to come out against federal marijuana prohibition. But even in the House, just 16 percent of the Democratic caucus is on record as favoring federal accommodation of state legalization via Rohrabacher's bill. By comparison, 81 percent of Democrats in a recent Quinnipiac University poll opposed federal interference with legalization, and 70 percent went further, saying they supported legalization.
"The time has come to decriminalize marijuana," Schumer says. "It's simply the right thing to do." In the Vice interview, Schumer said it's all about "freedom." After all, he said, "If smoking marijuana doesn't hurt anybody else, why shouldn't we allow people to do it and not make it criminal?"
Never mind that Schumer, a paternalistic busybody if there ever was one, does not seem inclined to extend that principle to many other issues, or that he insisted "I'm hardly a prohibitionist" while backing indiscriminate bans on new psychoactive substances. This guy has been alive since 1950 and in Congress since 1981, and apparently it is only now occurring to him that maybe people should not be clapped in handcuffs and locked in cages for growing, selling, or consuming a plant.
"I've seen too many people's lives ruined by the criminalization," Schumer told Vice. Many fewer lives would have been ruined if political hacks like Schumer had come around sooner. Schumer's own account suggests that he recognized the terrible consequences of marijuana prohibition for years before he did anything about it. So yeah, better late than never, but not much.