Not So Fast: Republicans are for and against cannabis

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DOUBLESPEAK U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, while lead sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has introduced a bill that would ban people from using federal assistance payments to buy cannabis.

By most accounts, the majority of people who use cannabis do so “recreationally,” while only a relative handful use it strictly for medical purposes—meaning, basically, people who likely wouldn’t use it at all if they didn’t need to relieve their pain, nausea, seizures or other ailments.

But, of course, it’s way more complicated than that. “I think all cannabis is medical,” Oakland pot lawyer and lobbyist James Anthony told me last year, after governments around the country started deeming cannabis an “essential” business that could keep operating despite the Covid lockdowns, thanks mainly to pot’s use as a medical treatment. He noted that grocers and pharmacies were also deemed “essential,” despite the fact that they also sell booze and Hostess CupCakes. Why should cannabis be any different? So what if only some of the people buying from dispensaries are “medical” patients, while most are “recreational” ones? The medical patients still need access to what is, for them, medicine.

That argument won the day, and it seemed like the question was settled by the “essential” designation, which was approved by pretty much every local and state government in areas where pot was legal.

But not so fast. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, has introduced a bill that would ban people from using federal assistance payments to buy cannabis. He happens to also be the GOP’s lead sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow banks to do business with cannabis companies without fear of legal liability, since weed is still illegal at the federal level.

This might seem like a disconnect, until you realize that in both cases, Daines is working to appease a different constituency. On the SAFE Act, his constituency isn’t, as you might expect, the cannabis business, or cannabis users: it’s the banking industry, which has pushed for such a bill for years now in hopes of reaping the vast rewards that will come from serving a business that is expected to grow to huge proportions in the coming years. On the assistance-payments question, his constituency is the Regular Folk of Montana, many of whom are—let’s say, “skeptical”—of any kind of government assistance that they themselves aren’t receiving.

If pot is indeed a medical necessity, as the “essential” designation decreed, then don’t welfare recipients deserve as much access to it as they have to food and pharmaceuticals? Daines hasn’t addressed that question.

Recreational pot became legal in Montana just this year. It will be interesting to see how conservative politicians respond as the industry there grows and gains power. For now, though, it’s putting it mildly to say that the banking industry’s lobbying might dwarfs the pot industry’s.

Daines put the measure into a welfare bill under debate. It would ban the use of funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in any shop that offers weed for sale. In the House, a separate bill that would enact the same restriction was introduced by Republican Reps. Jackie Walorski of Indiana and Tom Rice of South Carolina. This is a concerted Republican effort, not just Daines freelancing.

In his press release addressing the welfare bill, however, Daines didn’t even mention cannabis. “We need to do more to give Montana families a hand-up, not simply a handout,” he said in the statement, echoing a decades-old Republican talking point.
The motivation behind this move can be gleaned from a memo that was written in support of an earlier version of the House bill, as reported last week by the news publisher Marijuana Moment. That version of the bill would have banned people from “using welfare benefit cards for purchases at stores that sell marijuana, as well as…the withdrawal of welfare cash at ATMs in such stores.” It can also be gleaned from the title of the House measure: “The Preserving Welfare for Needs Not Weed Act.”

We seem to be in a period where many politicians, particularly Republicans, would like to reform some aspects of cannabis policy, while continuing to use it, selectively, as a culture-war wedge issue.