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EXCLUSIVE: Pelosi reflects on long career, LGBTQ advocacy

Former Speaker credits activists who fought for AIDS funding, marriage equality

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Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (Photo courtesy of the Office of Nancy Pelosi)

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sat down with the Washington Blade in her office Tuesday evening for an exclusive interview just weeks after formally stepping down from leadership, having led her party in the House for 20 years, including as Speaker. 

Pelosi reflected on the role she has played in landmark legislative achievements, including milestones in the fight for LGBTQ rights. She also addressed some current events that have earned significant attention from political observers and the beltway press. 

So much of the historic progress over the past few decades in advancements toward the legal, social, and political equality of LGBTQ Americans, including those living with HIV/AIDS, was facilitated directly or otherwise supported by Pelosi’s leadership in Congress, but she was quick to credit the tireless work of individual activists and LGBTQ, civil rights, and HIV/AIDS advocacy groups.

“I attribute the success with [fighting] HIV/AIDS and everything that came after,” from legislation on hate crimes to marriage equality, “to the outside mobilization” of these activists and organizations, she told the Blade.

Despite positioning herself as an advocate for LGBTQ rights well before that position was popular, Pelosi said she is unaware of any instances where she may have suffered political consequences as a result. Regardless, she said, “I don’t care.”  

The more she has been criticized for championing LGBTQ rights in Congress, “the more proud I am” of that work, Pelosi added. 

Pelosi has always been a strident LGBTQ ally, guided by her commitment to justice, love, and fairness as ordained by the teachings of her Catholic faith. These ideals are in perfect alignment, she said, as opposed to the position held by many opponents of LGBTQ rights who nevertheless claim to believe we are all created in God’s image. 

During an interview with Larry King, when serving as the San Francisco Democratic National Convention host committee chairwoman in 1984, Pelosi said the late television host remarked: “I just don’t understand how a Catholic girl who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland is such a champion for gay rights.”

“You’ve answered your own question,” Pelosi told him, referring to his mention of her Catholicism. “It is our faith that tells us that we’re all God’s children, and we must respect the dignity and worth of every person.”

Pelosi’s time in Congress began with the AIDS crisis, and she has kept up the fight ever since 

After committing herself and the Congress to the fight against HIV/AIDS during her first speech from the floor of the House in 1987, Pelosi said some of her colleagues asked whether she thought it wise for her feelings on the subject to be “the first thing that people know about you” as a newly elected member.

They questioned her decision not because they harbored any stigma, but rather for concern over how “others might view my service here,” Pelosi said. The battle against HIV/AIDS, she told them, “is why I came here.”

“It was every single day,” she said. 

Alongside the “big money for research, treatment, and prevention” were other significant legislative accomplishments, such as “when we] were able to get Medicaid to treat HIV [patients] as Medicaid-eligible” rather than requiring them to wait until their disease had progressed to full-blown AIDS to qualify for coverage, said Pelosi, who authored the legislation.

“That was a very big deal for two reasons,” she said. First, because it saved lives by allowing low-income Americans living with HIV to begin treatment before the condition becomes life-threatening, and second, because “it was the recognition that we had this responsibility to intervene early.”

Other milestones in which Pelosi had a hand include the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program, President Bush’s PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) initiative, the Affordable Care Act (which contains significant benefits for Americans living with HIV/AIDS), and funding for the Ending the Epidemic initiative. 

The last appropriations bill passed under Pelosi’s tenure as Democratic leader in December contained an additional $100 million boost to HIV/AIDS programs. 

These and other hard-won victories over the years – from the biomedical progress made possible by investment in research to foreign aid packages that have saved countless lives overseas – have often come despite staunch opposition from lawmakers, particularly congressional Republicans.

For instance, the late former Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina opposed federal funding for HIV/AIDS research because he considered it tantamount to the government’s endorsement of “the homosexual lifestyle” responsible for the spread of the disease in the U.S.

nancy pelosi, gay news, Washington Blade
Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks at the NGLCC National Dinner in 2018. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Asked how she might compare anti-LGBTQ members like Helms with whom she worked in the past to those serving today, Pelosi said the most salient difference is the homophobic and transphobic attitudes among lawmakers in previous decades were in many cases borne out of ignorance. 

Pelosi said that while the prejudice was “horrible [back] then” and she was “impatient” with lawmakers in the House who exhibited attitudes similar to those expressed by Helms, at that time people who held those views were often “just not up to date on what was happening in the world.” 

(Pelosi noted that, for his part, Helms seemed to soften his stance on matters concerning HIV/AIDS. She suspects U2 frontman Bono may have successfully appealed to Helms as a parent, but “I don’t know exactly.”)

By contrast, today’s lawmakers, like the overwhelming majority of Americans, “must have a growing awareness of [LGBTQ] people in their own communities, maybe in their own families,” Pelosi said. “They’re really in a different world,” which means, they “have made a decision that they’re going to be anti-LGBTQ,” she said, adding that hate and prejudice today is most often directed at the trans community. “It’s completely unacceptable.” 

Asked to share her thoughts on the many scandals that have unfolded over the past couple of months concerning gay freshman GOP Rep. George Santos of New York, Pelosi pointed out that while the congressman has dominated headlines recently, other members of the House Republican caucus who have weaponized homophobia and transphobia to a far greater extent than he are much more dangerous. 

But first, Pelosi said that House Democrats would never do what the Republican leadership has done by tolerating the embattled freshman congressman to protect their slim majority control of the chamber.

Santos is “almost a joke; he’s become a punch line,” Pelosi said. “He’s outrageous, and there’s no way he should be allowed to serve” given the extent to which the congressman has failed to exhibit the “dignity” required of members who are privileged to serve in the House of Representatives.

At the same time, “there are people over there who are more seriously dangerous to the freedoms in our country than him” Pelosi said. She pointed to the hate mongering and fear mongering in which many of Santos’s Republican colleagues have engaged, including “the things that that they say about trans families and, just, the injustice of it all.” 

Rep. Nancy Pelosi visits the site of the Pulse massacre in 2016.

The aim of these far-right lawmakers extends far beyond undermining the rights of LGBTQ people, of course. Pelosi noted that, “you have to remember, with all of these things, whether we’re talking about women’s right to choose – we’ve always expanded freedoms. And now with this Supreme Court, they’re narrowing freedoms with women’s right to choose” by the revocation of constitutional protections for abortion via last year’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. 

Breaking the ‘marble ceiling’

Rep. Nancy Pelosi is presented with a rainbow-jeweled gavel at an LGBTQ staffer event on Capitol Hill in 2012. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

During a lecture last year hosted at the University of California, Berkeley, Barbara Boxer, who formerly represented California in the House and then in the Senate, commented on the historic significance of Pelosi’s election to become the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2006. “The fact that a woman could get into the leadership like this, to win the trust of all these men, it’s more extraordinary than you can imagine,” Boxer said. 

Boxer has also been a trailblazer for women in politics. She was the first woman to chair the Marin County Board of Supervisors, and after her election to serve in the upper chamber alongside California’s senior Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the two became the first pair of women to represent any state in the U.S. Senate.

Asked how she managed to secure the votes from, particularly, the older men in her caucus without compromising her values, Pelosi told the Blade, “I just did what I believed” rather than coming to Congress to “change other people’s behavior.” 

She said that many of her male colleagues “had to get over their own negative attitudes” concerning the prospect of electing a woman to lead their party in the House, but “I wasn’t going to wait until then.”

At the same time, Pelosi acknowledged that “it took courage to vote for a woman as speaker,” noting that when she was sworn in back in 2007, she took the opportunity to thank the men who had supported her speakership. (She was elected unanimously on the first ballot.)

Pelosi said that prior to her speakership, she had always believed that the prospect of Americans electing a woman president was likelier to happen in her lifetime than members of Congress – who tend to be older men – voting for a woman speaker.

“I thought the American people were more ready than the Congress” to break the “marble ceiling,” she said. 

Considering the parallel special counsel investigations into alleged mishandling of classified documents by President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, Pelosi has perhaps unwittingly strengthened the case for America to elect a woman president by virtue of her unblemished record as a steward of sensitive, top-secret information. 

“I have 30 years of experience in intelligence. I have been on the [House Intelligence] Committee, the top Democrat on the Committee, ex officio on the Committee, a speaker and [Democratic] leader [in the House],” Pelosi said. 

She distinguished the rules by which she and other members of Congress are governed, which prohibit the removal or relocation of classified documents, from the policies that the Commander in Chief must follow, which are comparably more permissive. 

Regardless, Pelosi said, “the documents are to be respected,” along with the rules and procedures for how they should be handled. 

There are also important distinctions to note between the allegations against Trump and Biden, Pelosi said. “When you see the former president obstructing access to the documents, and you see this president saying, ‘I’ve instructed my lawyers to look for whatever is there and make them available to the Justice Department,’ that’s two different things,” she said. 

Additionally, Pelosi said, from the information that has been made available so far, it seems that Trump was in possession of a greater volume of documents whose contents were more sensitive than those at issue in Biden’s case. 

Pelosi’s LGBTQ fans celebrate her accomplishments 

Rep. Nancy Pelosi hugs activist Mike Almy at the certification of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal in the U.S. House on Dec. 21, 2010. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In November, the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, issued a statement following Pelosi’s announcement of her plans to step down from Democratic leadership but continue to represent her constituents in California’s 11th Congressional District in the House. 

“Speaker Pelosi has been the tip of the spear on watershed advancements for the LGBTQ+ community,” HRC President Kelley Robinson said in a statement, pointing to her 1987 speech on the AIDS crisis and “forceful advocacy for marriage equality long before its mainstream popularity,” both before she was elected as speaker. 

The Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was signed into law in 1996 with overwhelming support from both parties in both chambers of Congress; 342 members of the House voted for the proposal, with Pelosi joining only 64 other House Democrats, one independent, and one Republican in her opposition. 

“During [Pelosi’s] tenure as Speaker,” HRC noted, “the House of Representatives passed an historic hate crimes law [the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act], repealed the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law, led the fight to enact the Affordable Care Act, and vocally opposed bans on transgender members serving in our nation’s military.” 

Pelosi’s leadership was bookended with Congress’s passage late last year of the Respect for Marriage Act, which is credited as the greatest legislative victory for LGBTQ Americans since the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stands with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) at the enrollment for the Respect for Marriage Act in the U.S. House on Dec. 8, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Nancy Pelosi)

Outside the U.S. Capitol building, Pelosi has also been celebrated by the LGBTQ community for signaling her support through, for example, her participation in some of the earliest meetings of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, her meeting with the survivors of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre, and her appearance at a host of LGBTQ events over the years.  

Of course, at the same time, Pelosi has been a constant target of attacks from the right, which in the past few years have become increasingly violent. During the siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, her office was ransacked by insurrectionists who shouted violent threats against her. A couple of weeks later, unearthed social media posts by far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) revealed she had signaled support for executing Pelosi along with other prominent House Democrats. And last October, the speaker’s husband Paul Pelosi suffered critical injuries after he was attacked by a man wielding a hammer who had broken into the couple’s San Francisco home. 

Pelosi told CNN last week that her husband is “doing OK,” but expects it will “take a little while for him to be back to normal.”

Among her fans in progressive circles, Pelosi – who has been a towering figure in American politics since the Bush administration – has become something of a cultural icon, as well. For instance, the image of her clapping after Trump’s State of the Union speech in 2019 has been emblazoned on coffee mugs.

“What is so funny about it,” Pelosi said, is rather than “that work [over] all these years as a legislator,” on matters including the “Affordable Care Act, millions of people getting health care, what we did over the years with HIV/AIDS in terms of legislation, this or that,” people instead have made much ado over her manner of clapping after Trump’s speech. And while the move was widely seen as antagonistic, Pelosi insisted, “it was not intended to be a negative thing.” 

Regardless, she said, “it’s nice to have some fun about it, because you’re putting up with the criticism all the time – on issues, whether it’s about LGBTQ, or being a woman, or being from San Francisco, or whatever it is.” 

Rep. Nancy Pelosi talks with Blade reporter Christopher Kane on Tuesday, Jan. 24. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Nancy Pelosi)
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Politics

Survey finds support for Biden among LGBTQ adults persists despite misgivings

Data for Progress previewed the results exclusively with the Blade

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Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A new survey by Data for Progress found LGBTQ adults overwhelmingly favor President Joe Biden and Democrats over his 2024 rival former President Donald Trump and Republicans, but responses to other questions may signal potential headwinds for Biden’s reelection campaign.

The organization shared the findings of its poll, which included 873 respondents from across the country including an oversample of transgender adults, exclusively with the Washington Blade on Thursday.

Despite the clear margin of support for the president, with only 22 percent of respondents reporting that they have a very favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of Trump, answers were more mixed when it came to assessments of Biden’s performance over the past four years and his party’s record of protecting queer and trans Americans.

Forty-five percent of respondents said the Biden-Harris administration has performed better than they expected, while 47 percent said the administration’s record has been worse than they anticipated. A greater margin of trans adults in the survey — 52 vs. 37 percent — said their expectations were not met.

Seventy precent of all LGBTQ respondents and 81 percent of those who identify as trans said the Democratic Party should be doing more for queer and trans folks, while just 24 percent of all survey participants and 17 percent of trans participants agreed the party is already doing enough.

With respect to the issues respondents care about the most when deciding between the candidates on their ballots, LGBTQ issues were second only to the economy, eclipsing other considerations like abortion and threats to democracy.

These answers may reflect heightened fear and anxiety among LGBTQ adults as a consequence of the dramatic uptick over the past few years in rhetorical, legislative, and violent bias-motivated attacks against the community, especially targeting queer and trans folks.

The survey found that while LGBTQ adults are highly motivated to vote in November, there are signs of ennui. For example, enthusiasm was substantially lower among those aged 18 to 24 and 25 to 39 compared with adults 40 and older. And a plurality of younger LGBTQ respondents said they believe that neither of the country’s two major political parties care about them.

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Politics

Court records raise concerns about right-wing TikTok investor’s influence

Jeff Yass is a Pa. billionaire who has funded anti-LGBTQ causes

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Jeff Yass (Screen capture: Susquehanna International Group/YouTube)

The role played by Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass in the creation of TikTok might be far greater than was previously understood, according to new reporting that raises questions about the extent of the right-wing megadonor’s influence over matters at the intersection of social media, federal regulations, and electoral politics.

In 2012, Yass’s firm, Susquehanna International Group, spent $5 million for 15 percent of the short-form video hosting platform’s Chinese-owned parent, ByteDance. In the years since, as TikTok grew from a nascent startup to a tech giant with 1.5 billion active monthly users and an estimated $225 billion valuation, Yass and his firm pocketed tens of billions of dollars.

Beyond the size of Susquehanna’s ownership stake, little was known about its relationship with ByteDance until documents from a lawsuit filed against the firm by its former contractors were accidentally unsealed last month, leading to new reporting by the New York Times on Thursday that shows Susquehanna was hardly a passive investor.

In 2009 the firm used a proprietary, sophisticated search algorithm to build a home-buying site called 99Fang, tapping software engineer and entrepreneur Zhang Yiming to serve as its CEO. The company folded. And then, per the Times’s review of the court records, in 2012 Susquehanna picked Yiming to be the founder of its new startup ByteDance and repurposed the technology from 99Fang for use in the new venture.

Importantly, the documents do not provide insight into Yass’s personal involvement in the formation of ByteDance. And Susquehanna denies that the company’s search algorithm technologies were carried over from the real estate venture — which, if true, would presumably undermine the basis for the lawsuit brought by the firm’s former contractors who are seeking compensation for the tech used by ByteDance.

Questions about Yass’s influence come at a pivotal political moment

In recent weeks, federal lawmakers have moved forward with a proposal that would force ByteDance to divest TikTok or ban the platform’s use in the U.S. altogether, citing the potential threats to U.S. national security interests stemming from the company’s Chinese ownership.

The bill was passed on March 13 with wide bipartisan margins in the House but faced an uncertain future in the Senate. However, on Wednesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) announced plans to fold the proposal into a measure that includes foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, likely bolstering its chances of passage by both chambers.

Last month, shortly after meeting with Yass at his home in Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump changed his longtime stance and came out against Congress’s effort to break up or ban TikTok. The timing led to speculation about whether the billionaire businessman was behind Trump’s change of heart, perhaps by contributing to the cash-strapped Republican presidential nominee’s electoral campaign or through other means.

Meanwhile, Yass has emerged as the largest donor of the 2024 election cycle. A coalition of public interest and government watchdog groups have called attention to the vast network of right-wing political causes and candidates supported by the billionaire, often via contributions funneled through dark money PACs that are designed to conceal or obscure the identities of their donors.

The Action Center on Race and the Economy, Make the Road, POWER Metro: Faith in Action, Free the Ballot, and Little Sis launched a website called All Eyes on Yass that features research into the various causes he supports, along with insight into the networks connecting the entities funded by his contributions.

Broadly, in Pennsylvania they fall into five categories: Advocacy against reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights via the Pennsylvania Family Institute, lobbying on behalf of oil and gas industry interests by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, anti-union groups supported by Commonwealth Partners, a privately owned registered investment advisory firm/independent broker-dealer, the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, which seeks to privatize public schools and defeat proposed increases to the minimum wage, and the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, which advocates for lowering taxes on corporations and the rich.

Additionally, All Eyes on Yass reports that the billionaire has given massive contributions to Club for Growth and direct spending to support the electoral campaigns of right-wing Republicans including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Ky.), and Josh Hawley (MO); U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colo.), and former U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (N.C.).

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Congress

Lawmakers champion drug policy reforms at National Cannabis Policy Summit

Congressional leaders pledged their support for decriminalization

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), second from left (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

Speaking at the 2024 National Cannabis Policy Summit on Wednesday, congressional leaders pledged their support for proposals to remedy the harms of America’s War on Drugs while protecting cannabis users and cannabis businesses that are operating under a fast-evolving patchwork of local, state, and federal laws.

Overwhelmingly, the lawmakers who attended the conference at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C. or delivered their remarks virtually were optimistic about the chances of passing legislative solutions in the near-term, perhaps even in this Congress.

Participants included U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with U.S. Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and was honored at the event with the Supernova Women Cannabis Champion Lifetime Achievement Award. Republicans included an aide for U.S. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) who was featured in an afternoon panel discussion about the cannabis policy landscape on Capitol Hill.

Each of the members have long championed cannabis-related policy reforms, from Merkley’s SAFER Banking Act that would allow cannabis businesses to access financial services (thereby affording them the critically important protections provided by banks) to Lee’s work throughout her career to ameliorate the harms suffered by, particularly, Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana and the consequences of systemic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

The lawmakers agreed America is now at an inflection point. Democratic and Republican leaders are coming together to support major drug policy reforms around cannabis, they said. And now that 40 states and D.C. have legalized the drug for recreational or medical use, or both, the congress members stressed that the time is now for action at the federal level.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a formal request to re-categorize marijuana as a Schedule III substance under the rules and regulations of the Controlled Substances Act, which kicked off an ongoing review by the Biden-Harris administration. Since the law’s enactment in 1971, cannabis has been listed as a Schedule I substance and, therefore, has been subject to the most stringent restrictions on and criminal penalties for its cultivation, possession, sale, and distribution.

Merkley acknowledged that re-scheduling would remedy the Nixon administration’s “bizarre” decision to house marijuana under the same scheduling designation as far more harmful and addictive drugs like heroin — and noted that the move would also effectively legalize biomedical research involving cannabis. However, the senator said, while re-scheduling “may be a step in the right direction, it’s not de-scheduling” and therefore would not make real inroads toward redressing the harms wrought by decades of criminalization.  

Likewise, as she accepted her award, Lee specified that she and her colleagues are “working night and day on the legalization, not re-scheduling.” And her comments were echoed by Warren, who proclaimed in a prerecorded video address that “de-scheduling and legalizing cannabis is an issue of justice.”

Congressional Republicans have blocked legislation to legalize marijuana, the Massachusetts senator said, “and that is why the scheduling is so important,” as it might constitute a “tool that we can use to get this done without Republican obstruction.”

Warren, Merkley, and Schumer were among the 12 Senate Democrats who issued a letter in January to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration requesting transparency into its re-scheduling process while also, more importantly, demanding that the agency fully de-schedule cannabis, which would mean the drug is no longer covered by the Controlled Substances Act.

However, in a possible signal of political headwinds against these efforts, their Republican colleagues led by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) responded with a letter to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram “highlighting concerns over HHS’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule III-controlled substance.” The GOP signatories, all of whom serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also sought to “underscore the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) duty under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to ensure compliance with the United States’ treaty obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.”

As Norton noted during her prepared remarks, elected Democrats are not necessarily always on the same page with respect to expanding access to economic opportunity facilitated by cannabis. For instance, though President Joe Biden had promised, during his State of the Union address this year, to direct his “Cabinet to review the federal classification of marijuana, and [expunge] thousands of convictions for mere possession,” Norton blamed Biden along with House Republicans for provisions in the federal budget this year that prohibit D.C. from using local tax dollars to legalize cannabis sales.

A non-voting delegate who represents the city’s 690,000 residents in the House, Norton called the president’s position “deeply disappointing,” particularly considering his record of supporting “D.C. statehood, which would allow D.C. to enact its own policies without congressional interference” and grant its residents voting representation in both chambers of Congress. She added that the majority of Washingtonians are Black and Brown while all are held responsible for “the obligations of citizenship including paying federal taxes.”

Norton said the city should also have the power to grant clemency for crimes committed in the District, including cannabis-related crimes — power that, currently, can only be exercised by the president.

Some Republican lawmakers have been at the forefront of efforts to reform harmful cannabis regulations. For instance, a participant in a mid-afternoon panel pointed to the CURE Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) that would prohibit the federal government from denying security clearances based on applicants’ past or current use of cannabis.

While securing statehood for D.C. and de-scheduling cannabis via legislation or administrative action are perhaps, at least for now, a heavy lift, Merkley pointed to promising new developments concerning his SAFER Banking Act.

The Oregon senator first introduced the measure, then titled the SAFE Banking Act, in 2019, and he said the legislation’s evolution into its current iteration was difficult. “Regulators don’t want to be told what to do,” Merkley said, and negotiations with these officials involved “nitty-gritty arguments over every word.”

Pushback also came from one of Merkley’s Democratic colleagues. In September, Warnock, who is Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, voted “no” on the 2023 version of the SAFER Banking Act, writing: “My fear is that if we pass this legislation, if we greenlight this new industry and the fees and the profits to be made off of it without helping those communities” most harmed by the War on Drugs “we will just make the comfortable more comfortable.”

Warnock’s statement followed his pointed remarks expressing concerns with the legislation during a Senate Banking Committee hearing.

“Let me be very clear,” he said, “I am not opposed to easing or undoing federal restrictions around cannabis. And I would support all of the provisions and reforms in this legislation if paired with broader cannabis reforms that substantively address the issue of restorative justice. This bill does not do that.”

At this point, however, the latest version of the SAFER Banking Act has advanced out of committee and earned the support of Senate leaders including Schumer and much of the Republican conference.

“This is the moment,” he said. “Let’s not let this year pass without getting this bill — the safer banking bill — through the House, through the Senate, and on the president’s desk.”

In her remarks, Lee also discussed the importance of business and industry-wide reforms like those in Merkley’s bill.

“We have to make sure that the cannabis industry is viewed by everyone, especially our federal government, as a legitimate business,” Lee said. “Legitimate, which deserves every single aspect of financial services that any legitimate business deserves and has access to.”

Like Warnock, the congresswoman also highlighted how these financial and business considerations intersect with “equity issues,” as “those who have been most impacted by this horrible War on Drugs” must “become first in line for the businesses and for the jobs and for the economic opportunity the cannabis industry provides.”

Reflecting on her experience introducing the Marijuana Justice Act in 2019, which was Congress’s first racial justice cannabis reform bill, Lee remembered how “everyone was like, ‘why are you doing this? It’s politically not cool.’” Her legislation sought to end the federal criminalization of marijuana, expunge the criminal records of those convicted of cannabis-related crimes, and reinvest in communities that have suffered disproportionately from the War on Drugs.

The congresswoman said she explained to colleagues how the bill addressed “many, many layers” of often-intersecting problems linked to federal cannabis policy, telling them: “This is a criminal justice issue, a racial justice issue, an issue of equity, a medical issue, a veterans’ issue, and an issue of economic security.”

Two years later, with a 220-204 vote, the House successfully passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, a comprehensive bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and to the Senate by then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). The measure included Lee’s Marijuana Justice Act.

“This bill is the product of many, many years of advocacy for federal cannabis reform and equity,” she said in a statement celebrating the bill’s passage. “Make no mistake: This is a racial justice bill. It’s about the thousands of people of color who sit in jail for marijuana offenses while others profit. It’s about finally repairing the harms of the War on Drugs on communities and families across the country.”

“We’ve come a long way,” she told the audience on Wednesday. “And now we have a long way to go.”

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