Pressure is mounting for the Democratic Party to clean house following Hillary Clinton’s unexpected defeat in the presidential campaign, and that could bode well for marijuana legalization efforts.
Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota is mounting what appears to be a very strong bid for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). A stalwart progressive who backed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democratic presidential primary, Ellison is also a vocal supporter of cannabis law reform.
Earlier this year, Ellison helped to insert far-reaching pro-legalization language into the 2016 Democratic Party Platform, speaking up in favor of the plank during a sometimes contentious drafting meeting.
“As a person who would not recommend marijuana usage personally, I’m strongly in favor of this proposal,” he said. “This is gonna help us really get off the whole war on drugs, and I would really favor treatment over this incarceral system we have.”
In Congress, Eillison voted for a U.S. House amendment last year to prevent the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration from interfering with state marijuana laws. He has also consistently voted in favor of narrower amendments to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal impediments.
In contrast, the most recently elected chair of the party, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, voted against both marijuana amendments. She has also historically opposed measures to allow military veterans to receive medical cannabis recommendations from Department of Veterans Affairs doctors. Only this year did she switch her position to support the veterans measure, likely due to an unexpectedly strong primary election challenge from an opponent who campaigned on broad marijuana law reform. She also spoke in support of decriminalization during the course of her reelection campaign but refused to endorse the medical marijuana measure on her state’s ballot.
Wasserman Schultz ended up having to resign the DNC leadership post after leaked emails showed that her staff inappropriately tipped the scales toward Clinton in the primary campaign against Sanders. Interim chair Donna Brazile is also under fire for leaking primary debate questions she received as a CNN contributor to the Clinton campaign.
As a result, progressives in the party are pushing strongly for one of their own to take over as the new chair.
Ellison’s ascension to chairman isn’t a sure thing. There are several other candidates, including former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who, despite opposing marijuana law reform for years, ended up signing a decriminalization bill into law. Also running is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who served as DNC chair from 2005 to 2009. Dean has also endorsed removing criminal penalties for cannabis possession, though he opposed medical marijuana during his governorship.
But factors seem to be aligning in favor of Ellison. In addition to receiving strong early support from Sanders, fellow progressive stalwart Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said Ellison would be “terrific” as head of the party. He has also been endorsed by key moderates like Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the likely Senate Democratic leader in the new Congress. And Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the chamber’s current party leader, has also backed Ellison’s bid.
While Ellison hasn’t made marijuana law reform a signature issue at the top of his agenda, he has added his name to several cannabis bills in addition to voting in favor of floor amendments, including the ones aimed at creating protections for military veterans.
For the past four Congresses, for example, Ellison co-sponsored industrial hemp legislation and, in 2009, signed on to a bill to reschedule marijuana and protect state-legal medical cannabis activity from federal law enforcement.
Polls show that Democratic voters — particularly young and progressive ones — overwhelmingly support legalizing marijuana. Installing a cannabis law reform supporter as head of the Democratic National Committee would be very much in line with where the party as a whole seems to be headed on the issue.
The DNC election will be held sometime prior to March 1 of next year, when Brazile’s interim term expires. The decision will be made by roughly 200 party insiders who make up the Democratic National Committee.
Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.