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First-Time Congress Candidates Running on a Pro-Pot Platform |

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. In 2020, the Democratic-majority House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE), a bill that legalized and regulated cannabis at federal levels. However, it was not approved by the Senate. 

Democrats in Congress’ upper chamber also support cannabis reform. New York Majority Leader Chuck Schumer presented a draft of a bill last spring and pledged to officially 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. His plans include promoting federal cannabis legalization as well other issues, including voting rights and immigration reform. He was just a teenager when he first encountered cannabis. In fact, he admitted that he began selling marijuana and other controlled substances at 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.”

Thompson believes that legalizing marijuana will make a difference on many fronts. A steady supply will ensure that there is no shortage of legal domestic cannabis. This will reduce the imports by drug cartels. The threat of cartels to people living in cannabis-producing areas will decrease as well, making them less influential and incomeless. This will make communities more secure and reduce 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. Thompson has already set his sights on defeating Republican candidates, despite being in a conservative congressional district represented by Mo Brooks. 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 in Illinois

Jackie McGowan, a candidate for the House seat for the 17th congressional constituency in northwestern Illinois. Cheri Bustos (Democrat) has declined to run after five terms. 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. McGowan was an early user of cannabis, just like Thompson.

“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.”

Illinois, unlike Alabama which approved a limited program for medical marijuana last year, has legalized recreational cannabis and hosts a growing and thriving adult-use cannabis market. 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. Even with the assurances of reform, licensed cannabis businesses in the Golden State continue to struggle due to high taxes and the pervasive presence of illegal marijuana operators. She is determined to see federal cannabis reform avoid the same mistakes she made in her previous state.

“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.” 

Supporting small businesses requires minimizing the bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles. This is something McGowan says she has learned from California. McGowan says that the solution is to make lawmakers aware of how much regulatory burden small businesses face.

“Anytime we are raising regulations in one way, we have to lower them in another way” she says.

McGowan’s unique view on cannabis legalization and regulation argues that activists and the industry should not focus on winning policymakers but on supporting the political goals and ambitions of people who already care about reform. The road to legalization will be easy with strong advocates at the top.

Not everyone on this road has personal cannabis experience. Nancy Mace, a first-term Republican Representative from South Carolina is a notable exception. The States Reform Act was introduced by Nancy Mace in November. It is a bill that legalizes cannabis. Although it’s less comprehensive than the MORE Act (and many would argue more likely to succeed), it does not take a complete approach. 

Mace, who introduced the legislation, revealed how cannabis helped her to turn her life around following her 16-year-old rape by a classmate. After struggling with depression and anxiety, Mace quit high school to work at a Waffle House. After learning cannabis had more benefits than prescription drugs for her, she became the Citadel’s first female cadet. McGowan now sees Mace in the House of Representatives as an ally, assuming she wins a seat 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.”