On Tuesday, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced she would no longer accept campaign donations from corporate political action committees, citing the “corrosive effect” of dark money in politics.
On Wednesday, Gillibrand joined with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker to cosponsor the Marijuana Justice Act, which would end federal criminalization of marijuana.
In a statement, Gillibrand pointed to the racial disparities in drug sentencing:
Just one minor possession conviction could take away a lifetime of opportunities for jobs, education, and housing, tear families apart, and make people more vulnerable to serving time in jail or prison down the road. The reality that my 14-year-old son would likely be treated very differently from one of his Black or Latino peers if he was caught with marijuana is shameful.
The way the United States legal system treats weed is a piecemeal horror show that disproportionately locks up people of color for low-level drug offenses and pits the states against the federal government. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have some laws that legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. But since weed remains illegal at the federal level, users and businesses have had to contort themselves into ridiculous shapes—like obtaining phony medical marijuana cards, or offering weed as a “free gift” with a purchase of cookies, coffee or T-shirts—to steer clear of the feds.
Under the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Controlled Substance Schedules, cannabis—along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone (aka Quaaludes) and peyote—is classified as a “Schedule I” drug. That means the U.S. government considers weed a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Meanwhile, the DEA classifies cocaine, methamphetamines, and painkillers such as hydrocodone (Valium), oxycodone (OxyContin), and fentanyl as less dangerous Schedule II drugs that have “a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.”
That the U.S. government considers weed a more dangerous drug than prescription painkillers is so ass-backwards it boggles the mind. While there have been zero recorded cases of someone fatally overdosing on weed, more than 64,000 Americans died of opiate overdoses in 2016 alone, with the sharpest rise in overdose deaths coming from fentanyl and synthetic opioids.
The idea that cannabis doesn’t have any medical use is, at this point, laughable. In fact, there’s evidence that legal weed would help combat opioid overdoses. States that have legalized weed have seen their overdose rates fall, perhaps because people have non-lethal alternatives to treat pain and anxiety. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that Colorado saw a “reversal of the upward trend in opioid-related deaths” after the state legalized recreational cannabis use.
This is all to say that legalizing marijuana at the federal level is a good idea that makes eminent sense and has a broad base of support. Yet for far too long, nearly every elected Democrat—whose own voters overwhelmingly support legalization—has been too afraid of their own shadow to vocally support widespread legalization.
So: good on Gillibrand and Booker for coming out in support of an easily understood, eminently sensible and widely popular policy. Maybe they’ll coax more of their colleagues off the sidelines.
It looks like Gillibrand is gearing up for a potential presidential campaign by preemptively adopting positions favored by the left flank of the party. She’s carving out a space for herself in the 2020 Democratic primaries as someone who takes the demands of the Democratic base seriously, and responds in kind.
With her actions on campaign spending, sexual harassment and now drug policy, Gillibrand is trying to tell the left-leaning young people—the inevitable future of the Democratic Party—that she shares their values and isn’t afraid to be bolder than most of her colleagues, who have traditionally told those voters that, while they may believe in the same goals, they are politically impossible.
Sure, what Gillibrand is doing may be a calculated political move, but at the end of the day, impact matters more than intent. Even politically calculated moves can have unquestionably good outcomes.