Two top marijuana reform advocates in Congress are renewing their call to pass a federal legalization bill in light of the numerous state-level reform victories on Election Day.
In a Dear Colleague letter on Tuesday, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) wrote that “Americans in five very different states voted overwhelmingly to liberalize their cannabis policies and it is clearer than ever that the American people are demanding a change to outdated cannabis laws.”
The letter comes one day after House leadership announced that the chamber will be holding a floor vote on a federal descheduling bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—next month.
A vote on the legislation was initially expected in September, but leadership agreed to postpone it following pushback from a number of centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing marijuana reform before passing another coronavirus relief bill. Several of those members were voted out last week, however, calling into question their strategic judgement about the issue.
“This past election further demonstrated that cannabis reform is popular, non-partisan, and the just thing to do as states have also made clear their commitment to restorative justice,” Blumenauer and Lee, who co-chair the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, wrote. The pointed to the passage of legalization measures in conservative and liberal states alike, as well as polling that shows strong public support for the policy change.
“The recent success of cannabis reform in states around the country should give us a new sense of urgency to ensure Congress catches up with the American people,” they said. “This is a critical issue of racial justice, and the failed war on drugs has devastated communities of color, especially Black and Brown communities. We can no longer ignore our duty to repair the damage that this harmful form of systemic racism has done.”
Though they didn’t explicitly call in the letter for additional members to cosponsor the MORE Act ahead of next month’s planned vote, the lawmakers said the chamber has “an opportunity and duty to correct course now.”
“As we head into the lame-duck session, we must remember the promise we made to the American people to pass the MORE Act,” they wrote.
The legislation currently has 118 cosponsors, all Democrats with the exception of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL).
Even if the bill does pass in the Democratic-controlled chamber, as it’s expected to with some bipartisan support, it remains unlikely that the Senate will follow suit. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.
Even so, a symbolic vote for legalization could send a strong signal to the incoming Biden administration. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, but she’s indicated she would not proactively push the former vice president to evolve further on cannabis reform.
Given President-elect Joe Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to prioritize decriminalization or the other reforms he’s discussed.
However, Biden has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation was a “mistake.”
Outside of Congress, the incoming president could also make moves to advance cannabis reform administratively.
He could, for example, reinstate a version of the Obama-era Justice Department memo that directed federal prosecutors to generally not interfere with state marijuana laws, which was rescinded by the Trump administration in 2018. It is also within the power of the executive branch to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. Biden has pledged to make a move to Schedule II, though that would not achieve many of the changes advocates seek.
The president has the unilateral authority to grant acts of clemency, including pardons and commutations, to people who have been convicted of federal marijuana or other drug offenses. He also gets to appoint an attorney general, drug czar and other officials who will make decisions on how the federal government handles the issue—though many of those officials will be subject to Senate confirmation.
For his part, Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.
Read the Dear Colleague letter on marijuana legalization below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.