The recently deposed chair of Democratic National Committee is continuing to evolve her position on marijuana policy.
“When we take a look at how we deal with marijuana policy…I also support decriminalization,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a debate on Sunday with Tim Canova, her primary challenger for the Democratic nomination to represent Florida’s 23rd Congressional district. “I don’t think that we should be locking up people for small amounts of marijuana.”
Canova supports legalizing marijuana outright, and has called for broader drug policy reforms.
In the past, Wasserman Schultz hasn’t been supportive of efforts to move away from cannabis prohibition, but has started shifting her position in recent months amidst the unexpectedly strong primary fight.
“I have concerns that it is written too broadly and stops short of ensuring strong regulatory oversight from state officials,” Wasserman Schultz said at the time. “Other states have shown that lax oversight and ease of access to prescriptions can lead to abuse, fraud and accidents. Also, given Florida’s recent history in combating the epidemic of ‘pill mills’ and dubious distinction as having among the highest incidents of fraud, I do not believe we should make it easier for those seeking to abuse the drug to have easy access to it.”
Wasserman Schultz stepped down as chair of the Democratic National Committee last month after leaked emails appeared to show the supposedly neutral party organization favoring Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign over that of primary rival Bernie Sanders.
In the debate with Canova, who has Sanders’s endorsement, the congresswoman declined the opportunity to stake out clear endorsement of or opposition to this year’s Florida cannabis measure, but did voice support for the general concept of medical marijuana.
“I’m glad to see that the supporters and the sponsors of that amendment have tightened it up a little bit to address some of the concerns about prior loopholes. We want to make sure that people truly need it have the ability to get access,” she said. “I support the use of evidence-based medical marijuana.”
"I'm certain I have a public position," says @DWStweets. But she won't tell us what it is on medical marijuana.
— Tim Canova (@Tim_Canova) August 14, 2016
When the U.S. House of Representatives considered an amendment in May to increase military veterans’ access to medical marijuana, the Florida congresswoman voted aye, along with all but five other Democrats.
Previously, Wasserman Schultz voted against the same amendment in 2014, taking a position opposite 173 other Democrats who backed the measure. (She was not present during a vote on the amendment last year.)
Explaining the congresswoman’s 2014 vote against the measure, spokesman Sean Barlett told VICE at the time that she “felt that it was premature to vote for such an amendment given that [the Department of Health and Human Services] has approved a new study to look at marijuana’s potential effects on PTSD. While there is evidence that medical marijuana is effective in providing relief in some medical conditions, the congresswoman looks forward to the results of that study before making a policy determination.”
But advocates point out that no new HHS-approved studies on marijuana and PTSD have since been completed.
After the House veterans vote, Canova told Marijuana.com in a statement that the shift is due to Wasserman Schultz “feeling the heat on this issue from our campaign.”
In addition to previously opposing the veterans measure, the congresswoman has consistently voted against other marijuana reform proposals, including efforts to stop the Department of Justice from interfering with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws. This year’s version of the Justice Department spending bill has not yet been voted on, but could reach the House floor next month.
Wasserman Schultz’s endorsement of decriminalization during the primary debate represents new ground for her.
In a New York Times Magazine interview earlier this year, Wasserman Schultz implied that marijuana is a gateway drug. “I don’t oppose the use of medical marijuana. I just don’t think we should legalize more mind-altering substances if we want to make it less likely that people travel down the path toward using drugs,” she said. “We have had a resurgence of drug use instead of a decline. There is a huge heroin epidemic.”
The Democratic Party’s 2016 national platform endorses a “pathway” toward legalization and calls for cannabis to be reclassified under federal law. A number of state Democratic Party organizations have also included planks supporting marijuana law reform in their platforms this year.
The primary election between Wasserman Schultz and Canova will be held on August 30.
Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.