It’s no secret that with a few notable exceptions, Democrats in Congress have taken the lead on the path to eventual federal cannabis legalization. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, a bill to legalize and regulate cannabis at the federal level, was passed by the Democratic-majority House of Representatives in 2020 but failed to gain the approval of the Senate.
Democrats in the upper chamber of Congress have also advocated for cannabis reform, with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York unveiling a draft version of a bill last year and promising to formally introduce it this spring.
But despite the leadership of some Democratic lawmakers, significant progress on cannabis reform is by no means guaranteed, even with the party’s narrow majority in both houses of Congress. And with dozens of Democrats including the cannabis-friendly Representative Earl Perlmutter of Colorado announcing they won’t run for re-election this year, the time is ripe for a new crop of pro-pot candidates to take a shot at a seat in the House.
In deep-red Alabama, Charlie Thompson is running as a Democrat to represent the state’s fifth congressional district along the Tennessee state line. If he is successful, he plans to advocate for federal cannabis legalization and other issues including voting rights, immigration reform, combatting climate change and balancing the budget. He got his introduction to cannabis at an early age, freely admitting that he started selling cannabis and other controlled substances in middle school.
“I grew up on the streets, you know, slingin’ dope,” Thompson said in an interview. “I started that way and I saw that people actually use it for self-medication. I saw that, because of our system, people are looking for it for pain relief, for their daily ailments that they can’t get health care for because they can’t afford it.”
Thompson believes that cannabis should be legalized in a way that protects newly legal operators and gives them a chance to survive in an environment with entrenched illicit competition, and said “I don’t want to put taxes on it for a certain amount of time because what I want to do is make the price low enough that the street dealers can’t compete with the legal dealers.”
Legalizing cannabis, Thompson says, will have a positive impact on the nation on several fronts. With a steady supply of domestic legal cannabis, the demand for pot imported by drug cartels will dry up significantly. As the income and influence of the cartels wanes, their threat to the people in the cannabis-producing regions will also diminish, thereby making communities safer and reducing illegal immigration.
“A lot of the people that are crossing the border are crossing strictly because they’re scared to be there anymore,” he maintains. “They’re coming as refugees, basically. If their country wasn’t so bad, they wouldn’t come here. So it kills multiple birds with one stone if you do it right.”
Thompson’s first test with the voters of Alabama’s 5th congressional district comes during the primary election on May 24, when he, a half-dozen Republicans, and one fellow Democrat will vie for a spot on the ballot for the November general election. But in a conservative district now represented by retiring Republican Representative Mo Brooks, Thompson is already focusing on beating the GOP candidates. It’s a battle, he says, that could have repercussions on the fabric of our democracy.
“The six Republicans that are running this area against me, have all openly stated if they win, they’re going to try to get Donald Trump as the Speaker of the House,” he explained. “And their intention is to impeach Biden and Harris and usurp power. And I’m not going to allow my country to go down the road of an authoritarian dictatorship.”
Jackie McGowan Vying For Congress from Illinois
Jackie McGowan is running for the House seat representing the 17th congressional district in northwestern Illinois, where fellow Democrat Cheri Bustos has declined to run for re-election after serving five terms in Congress. McGowan recently returned to Illinois from California, where she worked as a cannabis industry consultant and ran as a Democratic backup candidate in last year’s failed Republican-driven bid to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. Like Thompson, McGowan also had an early introduction to cannabis.
“I’m running for Congress because I became a cannabis advocate at the age of 8. And I realized at a young age, even though I still believed in Santa Claus, that my mom was not beaten as severely as she was when my dad drank alcohol as she was when my dad smoked weed,” she revealed in a telephone interview. “So, at the age of 8, when I would smell that funny smell running through my house, I knew that my mom wasn’t going to get beaten that night.”
Unlike Alabama, where only a strictly limited medical cannabis program was approved by lawmakers last year, Illinois has legalized recreational pot and is home to a robust and growing adult-use cannabis industry. Eager to fight for legalization at the national level, McGowan is back in the state that is home to dozens of relatives and where she once worked in the financial sector, saying “my roots are here in Illinois.”
McGowan believes the time she spent in California, the world’s largest legal cannabis market, has given her valuable insight into the challenges of regulating legal weed. Despite the promises of reform, many licensed cannabis companies in the Golden State are struggling in the face of high taxes and pervasive competition from illicit operators. And she is passionate that the mistakes made in her former state are not repeated in federal cannabis reform.
“I saw and I had a first first-hand experience, a front-row seat, to how California messed up legalization for adult use–initially for medical, and then for adult use purposes,” McGowan said. “I am not willing to sit back and let the federal government screw it up just as much as California has.”
Although she has made federal cannabis reform a key issue of her first campaign for the House, McGowan acknowledges that it is not the only topic facing our nation’s lawmakers. She is also passionate about supporting agriculture and key Democratic values including healthcare and jobs, particularly those provided by independent entrepreneurs, saying “small businesses are the economic engine that keeps this country alive.”
The key to supporting small businesses is reducing the challenges imposed by regulation and bureaucracy, a lesson she says she learned all too well in California. The solution, McGowan believes, is for lawmakers to be cognizant of the regulatory burden they place on small businesses.
“Anytime we are raising regulations in one way, we have to lower them in another way” she says.
With her unique perspective on legalizing and regulating cannabis, McGowan believes that the industry and activists should focus less on winning over policymakers and more on promoting the political ambitions and goals of those who are already passionate about reform. With committed advocates in positions of power, the road to full legalization and acceptance will be an easy one to travel.
Of course, not every traveler on that road with personal experience with cannabis will be flying the blue colors of the Democratic Party. One standout exception is first-term GOP Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina. In November, she introduced the States Reform Act, a bill to legalize cannabis that takes a less comprehensive (and some would say more likely to succeed) approach than the MORE Act.
After introducing the legislation, Mace revealed that cannabis had helped her turn her life around after she was raped by a classmate at the age of 16. Struggling with anxiety and depression, she dropped out of high school and took a job at a Waffle House. But after learning that cannabis helped her more than prescription drugs, she went on to become the first female cadet to graduate from the prestigious military academy the Citadel. Now in the House of Representatives, McGowan sees Mace as a likely ally if she succeeds in winning a seat in the House this fall.
“The cannabis industry needs to start thinking outside the box and stop doing what it’s always done. And it needs to stop supporting career politicians and expecting to mold them into the industry leaders that we want them to be,” McGowan said emphatically. “We need to start putting our own people in those seats, both Republican and Democrat.”