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Pot Plank Sparks Protest from some Progressives


Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott has helped Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden craft the party’s platform on criminal justice and drug policy.

Scott and Biden are getting pushback from progressives on their plan. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden is known for being anti-marijuana, which he called a “gateway drug” during the Democratic primary. He later tried to walk that claim back. But many progressives are still upset their party’s presidential nominee is only getting behind marijuana decriminalization, like what the Commonwealth just accepted, but he still won’t endorse legalization.

Hampton Roads Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott helped Biden craft the party’s criminal justice platform, and he says Biden’s stance is progressive.  "There’s a profound change in direction for criminal justice – from a focus on lock them up and throw away the key to prevention, early intervention and rehabilitation. That is a profound change,” Scott said.

Biden’s vice-presidential nominee, California Senator Kamala Harris, has already been criticized for prosecuting marijuana possession cases when she was attorney general of California. And the platform Congressman Scott helped craft is a step back for Democrats, because the party endorsed a pathway to cannabis legalization in its 2016 platform, according to New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who we caught up with on the Capitol steps.  “It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that this is not on the Democratic platform," Ocasio-Cortez complained. "The Democratic platform on this issue is more conservative than it was in 2016.”

But Congressman Scott – the first African-American sent to represent Virginia in Congress since Reconstruction – dismisses advocates and his fellow elected Democrats who are complaining Biden isn’t going far enough.  “He’s running ads saying, ‘decriminalize.’ Okay. I mean, can we move on to the next issue? Some people just want to pick a fight.”

It’s not just nationally known progressives. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and a handful of Virginia legislators are also calling for marijuana legalization. But Biden and the Democratic Party’s stance is the same as most Republicans. Here’s Republican Congressman Ben Cline who represents much of Western Virginia.  “I don't think it belongs on the same schedule with cocaine and heroin and other deadly drugs, so I do support reexamining that and then leaving it to the states.”

In fact, even Cline is hearing about the issue from his conservative base.  “It's definitely on my constituents’ radar. I think we're taking steps in the right direction," Cline said. "But I agree that it should be a cautious step by step process.”

That’s why members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, like California Democrat Lou Correa, still see Biden’s approach as antiquated.  "I would have preferred if he did a whole lot more,” Correa argued.

Still, Congressman Scott – who chairs the powerful House Education and Labor Committee – isn’t buying the criticisms from his left or right. He says advocating for marijuana decriminalization, like Virginia just instituted, is a huge step forward.   “If you want to fine tune it, you can certainly do that when a bill is introduced…but a platform document shows the direction we’re going.”  

Many cannabis watchers have been waiting to see if President Trump and the GOP are able to swoop in and steal this issue from Democrats, but the president recently decried marijuana initiatives. Which is partly why progressives in Virginia and elsewhere are wondering why the Democratic Party has still left this popular issue on the table in 2020. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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