What’s Next: Democrats on marijuana legalization

Elizabeth Warren announced her plan last Sunday to legalize marijuana in the United States.  The plan goes beyond legalization. She will also “scrap past federal cannabis convictions and find ways to give people with prior convictions an advantage if they want to work in the legal marijuana industry,” according to Politico. Sen. Warren also promises to prevent “Big Tobacco” from swooping in on the industry. Her plan would not force states to legalize cannabis, but it would “reduce federal funding for law enforcement in states that decide not to legalize cannabis if the racial inequities in arrest rates for marijuana do not improve,” according to Politico. It would also expunge past marijuana convictions. 

Warren’s stance on marijuana is more progressive than Aaron Sorkin could have ever dreamed when he wrote “Ellie”: season 2, episode 15 of “The West Wing” (1999–2006). In the episode, Surgeon General Millicent Griffith (Mary Kay Place) is on a radio show when she receives a question about whether she favors the decriminalization of marijuana.

She says, “It’s not for me to say. I can say marijuana poses no greater public health risk than nicotine or alcohol. It doesn’t share the same addictive properties as heroin and LSD. Yet bizarrely to many of us in the healthcare profession, the law categorizes it as a Schedule 1 narcotic while putting a government seal on a pack of cigarettes.”

Griffith’s comments cause an uproar, and the President’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry asks for her resignation. This is their exchange:

GRIFFITH: “We’re spending a billion dollars a year keeping more than 40,000 people locked up.”

LEO: “That’s not your—“

GRIFFITH: “That’s not my jurisdiction. Which is why I didn’t comment on decriminalization.”

LEO: “Six committee chairs, three House, three Senate, are all talking about hearings … They don’t need to find anything. They need to say your name and ‘drugs’ as many times as possible on television. I don’t think you said anything wrong. Nobody thinks you did anything wrong. I’d like to do the right thing all the time, but I can’t. I can’t let us get bogged down. Government’ll stop. This’ll be what we do for two months. There are more important things.”

Although marijuana legalization may still be a contentious issue, it’s hard to imagine this conversation taking place between a Democratic president and their Surgeon General in 2020. Warren and Bernie Sanders may be the only candidates to have outlined policy positions on the federal legalization of marijuana, but every other candidate currently in the race, besides Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg, has said they believe marijuana should be legalized nationally.

There were 663,367 marijuana arrests in the country in 2018, or one arrest every 48 seconds, according to data from the FBI. The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports there are 11,533 inmates in federal prison for marijuana-related offenses. But there has been a progressive shift in Democratic policy on marijuana, and two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization. All this to say: the arguments that the Surgeon General makes in the episode are accurate, and people have started to realize that.