The first several months of the new Congress will tell us everything we need to know about its intentions and its dedication to cannabis reform.
Although Democratic control in Congress this year was supposed to lead to the legalization of marijuana at the federal level, the word on the street is that the newfound leaders of Capitol Hill might not be able to get that done for two years. Two years!
The Democrats have struggled to get marijuana-related legislation so much as heard in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has always stood in the way. But now, McConnell’s out, following a bruising victory by Democrats in the Georgia runoffs, so why all of a sudden are they pumping the brakes?
Some interesting movements took place late last year showing that Democrats were prepared to legalize marijuana if they were successful in Georgia. In December, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the MORE Act (Marijuana Opportunity and Expungement Act), designed to eliminate federal marijuana prohibition. The bill would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and establish a taxed and regulated pot market similar to alcohol and tobacco.
Even though the Democrats knew that the Republican reign of terror in the Senate would stop them from taking this measure all the way, they still made it one of their last pieces of business in 2020.
It seemed like it was necessary.
From the outside looking in, the approval of the MORE Act was a strategic move. If the Democrats won the two Senate seats in Georgia, their legislative agenda could advance, and the MORE Act would be waiting to be tossed into the mix once they were handed the keys to the upper chamber. If the Republicans ended up winning, however, they’d be no worse for wear. It was a flip of the coin, and in the end, the Democratic bet played out. They now have the power. They are calling the shots. So why is it going to take so long to put legal weed on the books?
Let’s back up a little.
Last October, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is expected to replace Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, said if the Democrats were to win control of the U.S. Senate, he would make pushing a marijuana legalization bill one of his priorities. “If I become majority leader, I put this [MORE Act] on the floor, and it’s likely to pass,” he told Green Enterprise.
Schumer’s time has come. But two years doesn’t sound like much of a priority, though, does it? It sounds like more sandbagging tactics. It’s almost as though the Democrats used the marijuana platform to attract voters (it’s a hot political issue), but now the plan is to dodge and stall. After all, the MORE Act is just sitting there right now waiting for Senate attention. It doesn’t need two years. Does it?
Some reports suggest that federal marijuana legalization “remains a tall order” even with the Democrats controlling Congress. Democrats have only a slim majority in he Senate (50-50), with Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris being the tiebreaker. Any pot-related bill that goes up for a vote isn’t necessarily a sure thing. Not every Democrat is likely to vote in favor, just like not every Republican should be expected to vote against. So even if the MORE Act gets picked up by the Senate in the next few months, the debate could keep the bill jammed up for quite some time.
On a positive note, at least the conversation surrounding legal marijuana in the United States is going to happen. That’s a start. Over the past several years, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has not once allowed a marijuana-related proposal to be scheduled for committee. Democrats will change that, but it might not be enough right now to get a marijuana legalization bill to President Joe Biden.
Congress might try first to pass smaller reforms to help the cannabis industry in states where it is already legal. We could see lawmakers finally approving the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow banks and weed companies to work together without federal law enforcement stirring trouble.
Democrats will likely work with the Biden Administration to pass a decriminalization measure and make moves to legalize medical marijuana and expand research opportunities. These concepts are already at work in some form or fashion, and Biden has made promises to see some through.
“Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level,” according to the official Democratic platform. “We will support legalization of medical marijuana and believe states should be able to make their own decisions about recreational use. The Justice Department should not launch federal prosecutions of conduct that is legal at the state level. All past criminal convictions for cannabis use should be automatically expunged.”
Although it could still take some time for the United States to fully legalize marijuana, that doesn’t mean the issue isn’t in better shape. It definitely is. The first several months of the new Congress will tell us everything we need to know about its intentions and its dedication to cannabis reform. Still, Democrats need to use their time wisely. Republicans could take back control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm. And then we could be right back inside a prohibition wasteland.