Loss of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a Boost for Cannabis Legalization

Published on July 24, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has come under intense fire in recent days over internal emails released by WikiLeaks that appear to show the party favoring Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign over that of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Wasserman Schultz will no longer have a major speaking role at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week, and some veteran Dems are now calling for her resignation for the sake of party unity. As one top Democrat told CNN, “She’s been quarantined.”

If Wasserman Schultz goes, cannabis legalization advocates will not be among those lamenting her loss.

[UPDATE: Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced Sunday that sheintends to step downas DNC chair after the party convention this week.]

Americans across the political spectrum increasingly reject cannabis prohibition and overwhelmingly support medical marijuana access. Likewise, voters of all stripes oppose jail time for cannabis possession. But when it comes to the nation’s dominant political parties, the Democratic Party's record on marijuana reform is superior. To wit: Led by Bernie Sanders supporters, Democratic Party delegates just underscored their commitment, as a party, to rescheduling and ultimately legalizing cannabis. 

"Because of conflicting laws concerning marijuana, both on the federal and state levels, we encourage the federal government to remove marijuana from its list as a Class 1 Federal Controlled Substance, providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization."

Given their commitment to drug reform, Democrats seem better poised to reap the political rewards that could accompany prohibition’s end. But recent evidence, including the WikiLeaks emails, suggests that the Democrats may somehow manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. For that the Dems may thank Wasserman Schultz, a singularly myopic party leader. 

Meet Debbie Downer

Wasserman Schultz is a (mostly) progressive six-term Congress member from southern Florida. Her gerrymandered district encompasses Miami Beach, Hollywood, and a chunk of Atlantic coast that stretches inland to the Everglades. Since 2011 she’s also served as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. That makes her the party’s head cheerleader, fundraiser-in-chief (she's lousy), and de facto spokesperson for the Democrats nationally. While her cheerleading skills are decent, Wasserman Schultz doesn’t speak for the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party on a host of issues, ranging from Cuban relations to trade policy. 

She also happens to be the party’s prohibitionist-in-chief. 

 Dems Move Party Platform a Little Closer to Legalization

For most of her career, Wasserman Schultz has opposed cannabis reform efforts in her district, in her state, and across the nation. This makes her an especially ironic hostess for an event in Pennsylvania, where medical marijuana was just legalized in May. 

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Wasserman Schultz's cannabis antipathy is evidenced in word, deed, and voting record. When Congress voted to protect state-legal medical cannabis dispensaries from federal raids, she opposed the measure. When Congress was asked to pass a 2014 measure to permit Veterans Affairs docs to advise patients on medical marijuana, she voted nay. When patients in her own district clamored for access to cannabis, Wasserman Schultz campaigned hard against Florida’s Amendment 2, which would have legalized medical use. 

A decisive majority of Floridians (57.6 percent) voted in favor of medical marijuana legalization, but that was just shy of the 60 percent threshold required for a state constitutional amendment. 

What made Wasserman Schultz's opposition to the MMJ amendment especially galling was her willingness to flip loyalties in order to gain political advantage. Three months after the election, Politico came out with a bombshell: Wasserman Schultz, ostensibly opposed to MMJ legalization for principled reasons of public health and safety, "offered to change her position on medical marijuana if a major Florida donor recanted his withering criticism of her." That "major Florida donor," the brash Orlando lawyer John Morgan, largely bankrolled the 2014 MMJ campaign. Her opposition wasn’t so much principled as baldly transactional. 

 Republican Platform: Let’s Worry About Legalization

Peddling the Gateway Lie 

Given her vociferous opposition of cannabis for sick people in Florida, you might imagine her views on legality for adult use. 

Whatever you’re imagining, the reality is worse. 

"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," Wasserman Schultz told the New York Times in January. "We have had a resurgence of drug use instead of a decline. There is a huge heroin epidemic."

When Wasserman Schultz isn't conflating cannabis with the heroin crisis, she's peddling the retrograde and largely disproven "gateway drug” myth. 

It's quite possible Congresswoman Schultz does indeed support medical marijuana philosophically. Her support just doesn’t run deep enough to overcome her petty, personal politics. And that's almost worse that being a prohibitionist. 

Does D.A.R.E. Still Think Cannabis is a Gateway Drug? Nobody Knows

Backed by the Bottle  

If Wasserman Schultz is such a frown-maker, who’s propping her up? The answer is Big Booze. 

The congresswoman’s reliance on the alcohol industry for campaign cash is well chronicled. We added it up: a whopping $228,600 since entering Congress in 2004 from manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors of wine, beer, and liquor. Familiar names like Bacardi ($16,000) and Guinness ($7,000) were quite generous. So was the National Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, which kicked in another $57,500 to ensure the reelection of a pro-liquor, anti-cannabis legislator. Many Big Booze executives made personal contributions as well — another $119,850. 

Those totals don’t include so-called dark money, raised and spent by unregulated super PACs.

That cozy relationship with the liquor lobby undercuts Wasserman Schultz's chief anti-cannabis argument. She tells her constituents she’s keeping the nation safe and protecting America’s youth from reefer madness. She's driven, she says, by "personal experience both as a mom and as someone who grew up really bothered by the drug culture that surrounded my childhood — not mine personally. I grew up in suburbia. I guess I’m protective. Safety has been my top legislative priority. I’m driven by the idea that safety is really a core function of government."

Here’s Why Cannabis Legalization Doesn’t Lead to Higher Teen Use Rates

Bounced in the Primary?

This November, voters in Florida will have another chance to legalize medical marijuana. Voter turnout and demographics in a presidential election year are expected to give the measure a good shot at passage. With the White House up for grabs, pollsters are expecting a larger, younger, more diverse turnout than in 2014, when Florida’s top race featured two highly unpopular candidates for governor. 

Will Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz work to keep medical marijuana out of Florida again? Or will she flip-flop and prove just how transactional her politics really are? Many cannabis activists aren't waiting to find out. NORML's political action committee just issued a full-throated endorsement of her primary challenger, Tim Canova, who's running hard to end prohibition. "Unlike Congresswoman Wasserman-Schultz, who has cast a number of votes opposing sensible marijuana law reforms, candidate Canova is making drug policy reform a key plank of his campaign,” NORML said in its endorsement. 

"I have opposed the misguided drug war for many years," Canova told Leafly recently. "On marijuana and drug policies, Wasserman Schultz has been out of step with the American people, and now she's out of step with the Democratic platform. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is perhaps the worst possible choice to host the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The party's platform recommends allowing states to be laboratories for reforming drug laws and decriminalizing marijuana."

Clinton Vows Tepid Leadership on Cannabis

If Wasserman Schultz clings to her national leadership role — now an even bigger question in light of the leaked-email fiasco — pro-cannabis Democrats may vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson instead of Hillary Clinton, who remains decidedly lukewarm on marijuana reform. This too is possible: If Tim Canova beats Wasserman Schultz in the Aug. 30 primary, she become a national party leader turned out of office by her own party. It’s not unheard of; two years ago Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was bounced in his own party primary by an upstart candidate more in tune with the district’s grassroots.

"Wasserman Schultz has spent her entire career demonizing marijuana as a gateway drug," Canova told Leafly. "She opposed Florida's 2014 statewide referendum for medical marijuana — a referendum that narrowly fell short of the required 60 percent mark. She takes money from private prison companies [less than $10,000 total, none recent] and supports private prisons. She has insisted on the draconian drug policies that result in mass incarceration and have brought so much harm to countless families and communities of color. She is increasingly out of step with her constituents in South Florida who will have the opportunity on Aug. 30 to vote against her in a primary for the first time in her congressional career — and to vote for medical marijuana again, in another statewide referendum in November.”

Presidential election cycles provide a once-in-four-years opportunity for activists to elevate their issue into the national debate. With the global media at the convention in Philadelphia this week, cannabis reformers will compete with environmentalists, gun-control activists, and others to drive their debate onto the national stage. With at least eight pro-cannabis events scheduled during the four-day convention, legalization advocates look poised to seize the occasion.  

Leafly will be on the ground in Philadelphia to cover the action this week and to elevate that lively discussion. Watch this space. 

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Jay Lassiter
Jay Lassiter
Jay has been covering New Jersey politics since 2005, when he founded a political journalism site and became the first credentialed statehouse blogger in America. He currently reports on politics for Leafly and the New York Observer.
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