Congress out of step with nation on marijuana laws
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As Election Day approaches, the public is showing unprecedented support for ending America’s nearly century-long experiment with cannabis prohibition, and replacing it with a controlled and regulated adult marketplace. Sixty-one percent of Americans believe that “the use of marijuana should be made legal,” according to nationwide polling data provided by the Associated Press. More than four in five adults favor legalizing cannabis as a therapeutic treatment option, and six in ten voters believe that states, not the federal government, should be the ultimate arbiters of marijuana regulatory policy.

Although a vocal minority of federal lawmakers is now advocating for policies that reflect this public sentiment, Congressional leadership on the issue of marijuana law reform is lacking. This growing divide between public and Congressional opinion is apparent upon reviewing NORML’s updated 2016 Congressional Scorecard, a database that assigns a letter grade “A” through “F” to members of Congress based on their comments and voting records on matters specific to marijuana policy. NORML has released its Scorecard today in conjunction with National Voter Registration Day.

How The Congressional Scorecard Is Calculated

NORML’s Congressional Scorecard grades members of the United States House and Senate on a scale of “A” (the highest grade possible) to “F” (the lowest grade possible).

  • “A” letter grades indicates that this member publicly supports regulating marijuana for adults.
  • “B” letter grades indicates that this member supports policies regulating the therapeutic use of cannabis.
  • “C” letter grades indicates that this member supports the rights of states to move forward with marijuana law reform policies free from federal interference.
  • “D” letter grades indicates that this member has expressed no support for any significant marijuana law reform policies.
  • “F” letter grade indicates that this member expresses significant and vocal opposition to marijuana policy reform.

NORML’s grading is based upon Congressional members 2015 and 2016 voting records and public statements, whether he or she has sponsored or cosponsored marijuana-centric legislation, and/or whether he or she has sponsored marijuana-specific budgetary amendments.

Key Findings

Of the 535 members of the 114th Congress:  330 members (62 percent) receive a passing grade of ‘C’ or higher (270 Representatives and 60 Senators). Of these, 22 members (4 percent) receive a grade of ‘A’ (20 Representatives and 2 Senators). 254 members (47 percent) receive a ‘B’ grade (218 Representatives and 36 Senators).

  • 54 members (10 percent) receive a ‘C’ grade (32 Representatives and 22 Senators).
  • 172 members (32 percent) receive a ‘D’ grade (149 Representatives and 23 Senators).
  • 32 members (6 percent) receive a failing grade (16 Representatives and 16 Senators).
  • 60 Senators (60 percent) receive a passing grade of a C or higher (Two A’s, 36 B’s, and 22 C’s).
  • 270 Representatives (62 percent) receive a passing grade of a C or higher (20 A’s, 218 B’s, and 32 C’s).

Of the 233 Democrats in Congress, 215 (92 percent) receive a passing grade of a ‘C’ or higher. Of the 302 Republicans in Congress, 113 members (37 percent) receive a passing grade of ‘C’ or higher. 

The Takeaway

This analysis affirms that voters’ views on marijuana policy are well ahead of many of their federally elected officials. While the majority of Americans support legalizing the use and sale of cannabis for adults, only four percent of Congressional members voice support for this position. Approximately half (51 percent) of federal lawmakers favor liberalizing medical cannabis policies. However, this percentage remains far below the level of support frequently expressed by voters in state and national polls.

Also evident is that Congressional support for marijuana law reform is largely a partisan issue. While more than nine out of ten Democrats express support for some level of reform, just over one-third of Republicans hold similar positions. This partisanship lies in contrast to voters’ sentiments, which tend to view the subject as a non-partisan issue. For example, recent polls from swing states show that super-majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents endorse medical marijuana legalization. Further, most Republican voters embrace principles of federalism with regard to cannabis policy. Nonetheless, Republican support for this position remains marginal among members of Congress.

In sum, it is apparent that voters views regarding marijuana policy have evolved significantly over the past decades. Yet, the positions of their federally elected officials have not progressed in a similar manner. Constituents ought to demand better. It is time for lawmakers to legislate on behalf of policies that more closely reflect marijuana’s rapidly changing legal and cultural status.

Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and an adviser for Freedom Leaf. He is the co-author of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" (Cheslea Green, 2013) and author of the book "The Citizen's Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws" (Whitman Press, 2015).

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