Political polarization has been a major obstacle to Congress getting anything done for years now. The last two congresses, the 113th Congress (January 3, 2013 to 2015) and the 112th Congress (January 3, 2011 to 2013) were, respectively, the second-least and least productive Congresses since the 1940s. They passed a dismal 286 and 283 laws, and lack of bipartisan cooperation was the number-one culprit. But the new Congress has found one unexpected issue on which Republicans and Democrats are starting to agree: cannabis.
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Corey Booker (D-NJ), and Rand Paul (R-KY) are co-sponsors of the new CARERS Act (Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States). The bill seeks to reschedule cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule II controlled substance, meaning it would be recognized as having legitimate medical uses. This would take federal pressure off dispensaries and states, make way for further cannabis research, and allow banks to work with dispensaries—all major improvements to the system we have now.
President Obama hailed the bill, telling VICE News, “What I’m encouraged by is you’re starting to see not just liberal Democrats, but also some very conservative Republicans recognize this doesn’t make sense, including the libertarian wing of the Republican Party.”
While marijuana legalization has long been considered a liberal cause, there is a very solid conservative argument to be made in favor of it: states’ rights.
“There is every reason to try and give more ease to people in the states who want this—more freedom for states and individuals,” Senator Paul said at a press conference.
Even senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) who just announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is expected to run, are making the states’-rights argument: they’re not in favor of marijuana legalization, but they think states should be able to make that choice if they so desire. (They’re probably influenced by polls that show 51 percent of Americans favor marijuana legalization. Hillary Clinton is making this argument as well.)
The CARERS Act is unlikely to pass, but it’s a milestone that such a bill is being drawn up at all—this is the first time since it was made Schedule I in 1970 that the idea of rescheduling marijuana has been introduced in Congress.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of activity in favor of loosening cannabis laws at the state level. Legislators in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont have introduced bills to allow adult recreational use. These are blue states, so most of the sponsors are Democrats, but the Massachusetts bill has thirteen bipartisan co-sponsors.
The Connecticut Supreme Court recently ruled that marijuana possession convictions that happened prior to 2011, when the state reduced penalties, be retroactively downgraded to around the criminality of a parking ticket.
All these changes on the state level are clearing the way for federal action. As President Obama notes, “At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana.” Now that it’s getting bipartisan support, the odds are better than ever.