New Democratic majority to usher in a wave of cannabis reform when new Congress is seated in January
For cannabis advocates and the marijuana industry at large, the midterm elections have been like a break in the clouds of an overcast year. The year began with a gloomy forecast as then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled back Obama-era guidelines for cannabis for then Department of Justice. Meanwhile, Washington D.C. lawmakers made only incremental progress on federal cannabis policy reform. All that changed on election day — or so it seems.
Americans may not agree on much these days, but one point on which most people are clearly in agreement is cannabis reform and putting an end to federal prohibition of marijuana. Approximately two-thirds of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana in one form or another, while three-quarters are in agreement that medical marijuana is a net positive. A poll released earlier this year by the Center for American Progress showed 68 percent of U.S. residents support legalization. That’s up from the 12 percent measured by Gallop in 1969.
Such sentiments have been rising for some time and are reflected in the fact that today more than 40 U.S. states have marijuana reforms on the books while ten have legalized marijuana for non-medical purposes. And nine of those have set up regulated markets.
Up until November 6, this groundswell of support was not enough to tip the balance of power in Washington in favor of cannabis reform. Now, with three House Democrats poised to chair major House committees all having pledged to put marijuana reform on the agenda in the next session of Congress, the climate in Washington seems to be turning.
Some of the big, hairy issues which are now sure to gather steam include states’ rights, racial justice, banking and tax reforms, and sensible scheduling of cannabis by the DEA.
The newest cannabis advocates in Congress
Democrats gained no less than 40 seats in Congress on election day. That’s huge. In fact, it’s the biggest turnover for the party since Watergate. But there are three incoming Representatives in particular whose presence in Washington bodes well for sunnier days for cannabis.
Rep. Maxine Waters of California is the top seed to chair the House Financial Services Committee. Waters told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that federal cannabis reform is “inevitable.”
She expressed that solving banking issues caused by federal prohibition is high on her list of priorities for the next Congress. It could have been a non-issue by now had Democrats won the House earlier. An amendment which would have protected banks from federal harassment was blocked from a vote last year by House Republicans.
Another ray of sunshine for cannabis advocates is the victory of Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts who is also gunning for federal reform as he readies to take the helm of the House Rules Committee.
The hugely important committee was previously driven by infamous Texas Republican Pete Sessions who has been staunchly opposed to reforms. Sessions used (some say abused) his power over the powerful committee to thwart the will of U.S. voters by preventing any marijuana amendments from reaching the House floor for debate.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws described Sessions as a “leading marijuana prohibitionist.” He single-handedly killed almost 40 marijuana-related bills before they had a chance to be heard including popular bipartisan measures such as giving military veterans access to medical cannabis.
Sessions was beaten by Texas Democrat Colin Allred who has been instrumental in organizing the Texas cannabis and hemp sectors.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York is the expected incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Nadler is not known to tiptoe around the issue. He has made clear that he supports ending federal prohibition altogether. The Judiciary Committee is responsible for oversight of the Drug Enforcement Administration. As chairman of the committee, Nadler has the power to assure that cannabis legislation comes up for a vote.
Two long-time cannabis-friendly Republicans were also defeated. California Representative Dana Rohrabacher whose name graces the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer Amendment was beaten by Democrat Harley Rouda. And in Florida, medical marijuana champion Carlos Curbelo lost to Democratic challenger Debbie Mucarsal-Powell. Although the two turnovers won’t change the balance of votes for federal reform, they do add to the breakup of Republican domination of the House.
Representative Earl Blumenauer told reporters on Wednesday, "In terms of a victory for the continued momentum of cannabis legalization, it was a big night." Blumenauer cited the fact that "three of the greatest obstructionists to progress are not coming back."
Finally, Chalk up one more vote as influential Senator Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts recently reversed his position on legal pot and is now calling for federal marijuana reform.
Divorcing hemp and marijuana
There are two distinct issues facing the next congress in terms of federal cannabis reform. There is marijuana, and there is hemp. With Sen. Mitch McConnell’s hemp language likely to be included in the soon to be consummated farm bill, hemp is now on the verge of being divorced from marijuana in terms of scheduling of controlled substances.
The measure essentially removes hemp and its extracts, including CBD oil, from the DEA’s naughty list and pushes the responsibility of regulating hemp cultivation and use onto individual states.
The fact of the matter is that the farm bill is required to be renewed every four years, so the question is not whether or not the farm bill will pass but whether or not the hemp language will be included in the final version of the bill.
According to McConnell, himself, his hemp provisions are all but guaranteed to be retained in the final bill. McConnell told reporters in his home state of Kentucky, "If there's a farm bill it will be in there, I guarantee you that. We're trying right now to make sure there's a farm bill and before the end of the year.”
The hemp measures have very little to do with the midterm elections. However, it is a big piece in the overall cannabis reform puzzle. And as more pieces get put into place, the picture becomes clearer for any lawmakers who are still on the fence.
Expected marijuana reforms
While federally legal hemp seems to be in the can, marijuana, itself, is a much stickier issue.
Blumenauer has outlined a path forward. His plan would put racial justice at the forefront of the issue. Blumenauer sent a memo to Democratic leadership stating, “committees should start marking up bills in their jurisdiction that would responsibly narrow the marijuana policy gap—the gap between federal and state marijuana laws—before the end of the year. These policy issues … should include: Restorative justice measures that address the racial injustices that resulted from the unequal application of federal marijuana laws.”
As for McGovern, according to statements made to the Boston Globe, he has promised to facilitate Congressional action on marijuana-related amendments when he assumes control of the House Rules Committee in January.
“Unlike my predecessor, I’m not going to block amendments for marijuana. Citizens are passing ballot initiatives, legislatures are passing laws, and we need to respect that. Federal laws and statutes are way behind,” he was quoted as saying.
Some of the bills expected to come down the pike include expansion of medical marijuana research.
At one point in 2018, there were more than 40 cannabis-related bills being circulated in the House covering a wide range of issues including banking, medical research, states rights, racial justice, federal penalties, drug scheduling, and much more. It’s a good bet that many of these efforts will now be consolidated into a comprehensive federal cannabis reform package.
An upside for District of Columbia residents
Marijuana possession has been legal for adult residents of the District of Columbia since 2014 when voters passed a ballot measure permitting possession of small amounts of the drug. Selling — and therefore buying — the drug outside of medical dispensaries is, however, still prohibited. This also may change as a result of midterm turnovers.
Incoming District of Columbia Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, has said she plans to introduce marijuana legislation in early 2019. The main hurdle for Bowser is that it is the House of Representatives that decides how the city spends its money, and House Republicans have blocked the city from budgeting funds for the regulation and taxation of marijuana.
However, with Republicans losing control of the House, this hurdle is bound to fall. With a budget deadline looming this could conceivably happen as early as next month. However, until a new Congress is ushered into their seats in January, Republicans are still in control of the House. The next window of opportunity will come on Oct. 1, 2019. It is unlikely that D.C. residents will be able to purchase marijuana any time before 2020 legally.