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Are Democrats Making A Mistake Pushing Cannabis Reform?

Will a cannabis decriminalization bill draw potential voters toward Democrats in the 2020 election, or will it turn them off?

Backing pro-cannabis reform seems like a no-brainer for Democrats. Two out of three Americans support legalizing marijuana, according to the latest Gallup poll. Even in conservative states like Mississippi, support to push cannabis legislation exists among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike.  

Increasingly, activists have linked ending cannabis prohibition with calls for racial justice following the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police. Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris made the connection more explicit in a CNN interview last week.

RELATED: Kamala Harris Questions Discriminatory Marijuana Prosecutions, But Ignores Her Past

“There are huge disparities in our country based on race,” she said. “It does us no good if we want to solve those disparities to pretend they don’t exist.”

“You can look at, for example, marijuana offenses. Equal use between white population and the black populations, but black people are exponentially more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for those offenses.”

The House of Representatives will vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act this September. The bill would decriminalize cannabis nationwide and expunge marijuana records for some folks.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Staff/Getty Images

Democratic leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, put forth the legislation amid an ongoing stalemate with Republicans about the next round of coronavirus stimulus relief. Although the House already passed its own stimulus package, GOP party members have used the juxtaposition to attack the Democrats.

“We are dealing with a pandemic and mob violence is terrorizing major cities – so what’s first up on Speaker Pelosi’s agenda after a long House recess? Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) tweeted. “No Joint Left Behind – A bill legalizing pot!”

Even House Republicans that support the bill, like Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), questioned the decision.

“I do find it ironic that the only small businesses the Democrats seem to be worried about are cannabis shops,” McClintock told Politico. “But I would support this bill whenever it is brought to a vote.”

But not all Democrats align on the issue either. Presidential candidate Joe Biden supports decriminalizing cannabis, but believes further medical research is necessary before legalizing nationwide. Some Democrats believe passing the bill could show voters what is possible under their party’s leadership. Others worry the messaging could instead become mixed.

You’re harming your ability to defeat Donald Trump,” Jon McHenry, a Republican who works at North Star Opinion Research, told Politico. “He and his Republican allies get to say, ‘See, Joe Biden’s not going to be in control. Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are in control.’”

RELATED: Trump Fears States Legalizing Marijuana Could Lose Him The Election

President Donald Trump expressed worry privately that having cannabis legalization measures in battleground states like Arizona could cost him votes in November. He told Republicans at a rally last month that they should keep cannabis reform off the ballot if they want to win.

“The president is keenly aware of how presidential elections [nowadays]… can be won at the margins,” one Republican strategist who discussed the issue with Trump told The Daily Beast. “The pot issue is one of many that he thinks could be a danger… He once told me it would be very ‘smart’ for the Democrat[ic] Party to get as many of these on the ballot as they could.”

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