‘Just Say No’ can no longer be the Republican approach to cannabis
When some Americans think about cannabis, they may remember Richard Nixon signing the Controlled Substances Act, classifying drugs based on the potential for abuse,
or First Lady Nancy Reagan surrounded by children in the Rose Garden wearing “Just Say No” t-shirts. Regardless, what started as an effort to steer young adults away from drugs has left our country three decades later with a severe lack of research, mass incarcerations,
and far too little progress in the conversation of how best to regulate cannabis. While
the federal government remains stalled, state voters are marching ahead by changing state laws.
When I entered Congress in 1999, I believed that cannabis should remain a Schedule 1 drug, along with LSD, heroin, ecstasy, and many others. Throughout my tenure in the U.S. House, some Democratic colleagues sought legislative funding for research or even decriminalization of cannabis. Those bills received little support within their own party, and even less progress on having a bipartisan discussion about cannabis.
Over the years, states have moved ahead on cannabis regulation by enacting decriminalization in the 1970s and medical use laws in the 1990s. Over the last 10 years, popular opinion on cannabis use has evolved. Since 2012 when Colorado became the first state to pass legal recreational use for adults to today, where 69 percent of Americans support cannabis legalization and over 100-million of us live in a state with legalized, adult-use cannabis. This includes my home state of Oregon, where voters passed a ballot initiative in 2014 legalizing adult-use cannabis for those 21 and older. In poll after poll, voters around the country
continue to make it clear they want out of the prohibition era.
Today there are 18 states with legalized adult-use and 38 states with legalized medical use; yet, we still do not have a federal framework that regulates — or even provides safe guardrails — for the increasing complexities of this $61 billion cannabis industry.
The party that once held tight to “Just Say No,” is now coming to the table and proposing common-sense legislation to federally regulate cannabis and ensure states’ rights.
Cannabis reform should receive Republican support: let states govern themselves and create opportunities for people to gain access to capital. Recent proposals by Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) prioritize common-sense regulation, smart public safety measures, and thoughtful research.
States should determine their own paths here. The federal government should not mandate that a state make cannabis legal. But it should provide uniformed standards to combat driving while high, while simultaneously using cannabis tax revenue to train officers and prosecutors. It should help stop the black market and illegal theft or diversion of water. It should help states prevent youth use and substance abuse. And it should step out of the way of normal business transactions, such as obtaining a loan, so that small businesses people can succeed.
As the former two-time chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, I believe the midterms provide Republicans an opportunity to show voters how they can provide real solutions for one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. Today, more than 300,000 Americans work in cannabis, with over 70,000 jobs added in 2020 alone — despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Congressional Republicans have a chance to embrace a new set of ideals around economic opportunities with jobs and investments through a federal framework.
A federal framework for cannabis would provide much-needed clarity to the growing number of states with legalized adult-use use including enforcement tools, revenue mechanisms, access to capital for those looking to start a business, and product and consumer safety requirements. This is the opportunity for Republicans to lead on cannabis issues and build a regulatory system that aligns with public opinion, creates an efficient marketplace, and protects public health and safety. Let’s learn from past mistakes and come together to have a thoughtful conversation and create policies that work for all Americans.
Cannabis reform is here. Now is not the time to “Just Say No.” Now is the time to get it right.
Greg Walden represented Oregon’s 2nd District for twenty-two years in the U.S. House of Representative, chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee, and the National Republican Congressional Committee. He serves as Co-Chair for Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Reform.