.Cannabis and Congress

Republicans may have taken back the House of Representatives, but that may not hinder legalization 

In January, the Republicans will take back the House of Representatives with a slim majority. Some advocates of liberalizing cannabis laws see this as bad news for their agenda. 

At best, they hope for legalizing weed at the federal level. Failing that, they hope to at least make things easier for the legal-pot business and for consumers in legal states by passing reforms such as the Safe Banking Act, which would allow financial institutions to do business with pot companies without fear of liability.

Republicans are much more prohibitionist than Democrats are, generally speaking. Just under half of Republican voters support adult-use legalization, compared to more than 70% of Democrats. This is largely thanks to Republicans skewing both older and more rural. Because of that, some Republicans, most notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have held firm against most reforms, and have used pot as a cultural wedge issue to paint Democrats as flighty, unserious hotheads. It’s stupid, of course, but it works.

But much depends on the constituency of a given Republican. Cannabis is one of the rare issues in Washington that is “bipartisan,” on both sides of the question (there are a few prohibitionist-minded Democrats). Some politicians, like Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, are all for legalization, often because enough their constituents are younger and more urban and either favor legalization or don’t care all that much about it, as long as their representatives keep railing against “wokism,” “cancel culture” and so forth.

While some pot-reform advocates see the loss of the House as a huge setback, it’s probably more of a wash, at least when it comes to big kahuna: federal legalization. Even if the Democrats held power in the House, McConnell would still have the filibuster on his side, meaning that a supermajority of the upper chamber would have to approve the measure. And that’s unlikely to happen, at least in the next couple of years.

But that doesn’t mean some reforms can’t be passed, either during the lame-duck session or after the new House members are sworn in next month.

On Sunday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the newly elected leader of the House’s Democratic caucus (replacing Nancy Pelosi), expressed optimism that some measures could pass the House in the new session. On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, the host asked Jeffries about his hope for “bipartisan compromise.” Unprompted, Jeffries cited cannabis reforms, something that Pelosi would likely never have done in a similar situation.

“We…introduced the PREPARE Act to prepare the federal government to move toward the legalization of cannabis, which state after state, blue states and red states and purple states all across America are doing,” Jeffries said.

While the House Republican leadership has promised to turn the legislature into a pig circus, with all kinds of jive “investigations” of the Biden administration, members of the House January 6 Committee, etc., it’s still possible that some work will actually get done, too. At least, so Jeffries seems to believe. On cannabis and a few other issues, “there is an opportunity for common ground,” he said.

Maybe, but in the meantime, several more weeks remain in the current House, and some reforms might get passed before the farce begins next month. Chief among those is a bill that combines the SAFE Banking Act with expungements of criminal records for people with cannabis-related convictions on their records. Negotiations have been going on for months on the SAFE Plus bill in the Senate.

Combining the two issues in one bill has complicated matters (provisions governing minority lending and other matters are in dispute), but one unidentified pot-reform advocate told the Marijuana Moment newsletter that there are “unprecedented levels of optimism” surrounding the measure, and some lawmakers seemed to agree. 

Of course, just a couple of years ago there were unprecedented levels of optimism that Congress would soon pass a legalization bill and President Joe Biden would sign it. When it comes to pot reform, nothing is certain until it’s final. 

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