Two Georgia runoff elections for U.S. Senate seats being held next month will decide which party controls the chamber—and that will have significant implications for marijuana policy in the 117th Congress.
Democratic wins for both positions would mean that the party would reclaim command over the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaker. Both of the Democratic candidates vying for those seats are in favor of cannabis and drug policy reform. If Republicans keep the majority by winning at least one of the Georgia seats, meanwhile, the prospects of ending federal marijuana prohibition would be dimmed for at least the next two years.
That’s not because GOP voters oppose enacting the policy change. In fact, 51 percent of Republicans said in a recent poll that they favor a House-passed bill to federally legalize marijuana. But current leadership in the Senate has given no signal that they would take up, let alone prioritize, cannabis reform. Figures like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who holds staunchly anti-marijuana views, would likely be reinstalled next year if the party keeps control.
What all of that means is that the January 5 runoffs will likely decide the fate of federal cannabis policy, at least until the 2022 midterm elections. For voters who care about marijuana issues in the state, which went to President-elect Joe Biden in a historic flip, there’s a lot at stake.
Here’s where each of the Georgia Senate candidates stand on cannabis, followed by some broader analysis:
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA)
The senator, who joined Congress earlier this year after being appointed by the state’s governor to fill a vacancy, earned an F grade on her cannabis platform from the advocacy group NORML.
Loeffler said that while she understands “some of the arguments in favor of ending the federal prohibition of marijuana and am aware that there are potential medical applications,” she is “concerned about the negative effects that legalizing marijuana would have on communities, families, and our nation’s youth.”
She also pointed to an advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General cautioning against cannabis use by adolescents and pregnant women.
“Any efforts by Congress to legalize this substance must be taken seriously and with the common goal in mind to prevent Americans from becoming dependent on drugs,” she said, according to NORML.
Loeffler said in an American Family Association survey that she “strongly disagrees” with the legalization of marijuana.
The senator has also been dismissive of recent congressional efforts to reform marijuana laws. For example, she criticized House Democrats for including language in a coronavirus relief bill that would protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
.@realDonaldTrump is fighting to restore the blue collar boom he created since taking office while the Democrats’ relief plan mentions cannabis 20 more times than it mentions jobs.
It’s time to drop these political games & get this done. pic.twitter.com/wJtwAEkJ4K
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) August 8, 2020
She also joined the chorus of Republicans who chastised Democrats for holding a vote on a bill to federally legalize marijuana this month. That legislation was approved.
Millions of Americans are struggling, and what is Pelosi's House Majority doing?
– Voting on a "Tiger King" bill
– Voting to legalize marijuana
– Studying ceiling fans
Meanwhile they're still blocking aid for small businesses & employers.
Americans deserve better. https://t.co/lMdyq7y0HT
— Senator Kelly Loeffler (@SenatorLoeffler) December 9, 2020
Loeffler has not cosponsored any cannabis reform bills during her time in the Senate.
Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock
The reverend has frequently discussed the failures of the war on drugs and supports marijuana reform.
“Marijuana is seen as an illegal substance,” he said in one sermon. “It’s a terrible irony and we feel it, that right now in America there are some folks who are becoming billionaires for selling the same stuff that’s got our children locked up all across America.”
“Where is the justice?” he asked “It’s not enough to decriminalize marijuana. Somebody’s gotta open up the jails and let our children go.”
Loeffler, who Warnock is running to unseat, attempted to criticize him for those remarks by falsely claiming in a debate this month that he wanted to broadly empty prisons and wouldn’t keep communities safe.
Loeffler's line about Warnock wanting to "empty the prisons" is pretty misleading. Warnock was talking specifically about marijuana convictions. The quote was: "It’s not enough to decriminalize marijuana; somebody’s got to open up the jail cells and let our children go."
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) December 7, 2020
Speaking more broadly about the drug war in another sermon, Warnock pointed out that the U.S. only seemed to take a public health approach to substance misuse when it became clear that the opioid misuse epidemic was entered largely white communities.
“For 35 years we’ve had a war on drugs. Now, back then we were dealing with heroin, crack. Now we’re dealing with meth and opioids,” he said. “It’s interesting to me that now we have a public health emergency. I’m glad we’ve become so enlightened now that the bodies are suburban, rural and white.”
“In 1980, there were about 300,000 or so Americans in prison. Today there are 2.3 million Americans in prison. Most of them are there for non-violent, drug-related offenses in America’s so-called war on drugs. We warehouse in America 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Nobody else comes close. Not even China with a billion people. We’ve got them beat. We warehouse 25 percent of the world’s prisoners in the so-called war on drugs.”
“When our children take a plea, sometimes for a marijuana charge—and we deplore drug use, to be sure.—but some children are taken down to central booking, and others are taken home,” he said. “The issue is not simply drugs. Raise your hand if you ever tried some weed. You’re in church now.”
Sen. David Perdue (R-GA)
NORML gave Perdue a B- for his cannabis record in the Senate.
“I’m not a doctor, but the only use of marijuana that I would support today would be the medical use of it,” he said in 2014. “I’ve talked to other physicians that think it’s a valuable tool to use. I’m basing this on medical thought that that is a tool to use against some treatments for cancer and so forth, and if that can be used medicinally, I would be OK with that.”
Perdue said he would protect his state’s limited medical cannabis program from potential federal interference.
“As a senator, I’m telling you that I’m going to support the law of the land in the state of Georgia, that’s first of all, second of all, that the medicinal use of it is something that I would be receptive to,” he said.
Perdue is opposed to broader legalization and has not cosponsored any marijuana reform legislation in the Senate.
Democrat Jon Ossoff
Jon Ossoff, the Democratic challenger to Perdue is in favor of cannabis legalization and said that he would push for the policy change if elected to the Senate.
In the Senate I'll fight for stronger civil rights laws and due process protections, an end to mandatory minimum sentencing, prison reform that raises conditions to humane standards, death penalty abolition, cannabis legalization, and to ban private prisons.
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) June 19, 2020
“Some get rich in the legal cannabis industry while others sit in prison for nonviolent cannabis offenses. Prohibition destroys lives, wastes resources, and enriches cartels,” he wrote in July. “Federal legalization is long overdue.”
Some get rich in the legal cannabis industry while others sit in prison for nonviolent cannabis offenses.
Prohibition destroys lives, wastes resources, and enriches cartels.
Federal legalization is long overdue. pic.twitter.com/vOQEj1YYGU
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) July 21, 2020
In an interview CNBC, Ossoff said “I won’t just push for decriminalization, I’ll push for nationwide legalization of cannabis.”
“The prohibition of this substance is irrational,” he said. “It’s hugely expensive. It has a terrible human toll.”
He’s also previously remarked that marijuana is safer than alcohol, while prohibition “destroys lives.”
Fact: Cannabis is much less dangerous than alcohol.
Its prohibition destroys lives, enriches drug cartels and the prison industry, and costs taxpayers billions per year.
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) October 12, 2019
Ossoff’s campaign website pledges that he will work to “legalize cannabis” and “end incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses.”
Given the increasing bipartisan nature of marijuana reform—coupled with the fact that five more states voted to legalize on Election Day in some form, including several conservative states—it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that a Republican-controlled Senate could meet House Democrats in the middle and advance some kind of policy change in 2021. But it’s unlikely that such reform would be comprehensive and include the restorative justice components that advocates are pushing for.
It’s possible, for example, that GOP members would move limited bills to protect states with cannabis legalization on the books from federal intervention, or to shield banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by regulators.
But the distinct possibility remains that even those proposals may linger in the Senate if Democrats don’t secure the chamber, as the current Republican majority has shown no willingness to move even modest marijuana reforms. And even if GOP leadership did decide to advance cannabis legislation, Loeffler has indicated she’s not amenable to minor reforms, regardless of their bipartisan nature.
What that means is that, if advocates hope to finally end cannabis prohibition in 2021, both Ossoff and Warnock would likely need to prevail in the runoffs next month. That would get leadership in place that would be more willing to advance the policy change as well as put two more individual pro-reform lawmakers in office.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who would be expected to become majority leader if Democrats take the Senate, has said he will advance cannabis legislation if given the power to set the floor agenda.
For what it’s worth, the Democratic challengers have the advantage among most Georgia voters when it comes to marijuana. Two separate 2018 polls released by 11Alive News found that 55 percent of residents back the reform.
In January of that year, 50 percent of voters said in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey that they favor legalization, compared to 46 percent who said they were opposed. An overwhelming 77 percent said in that poll that they support expanding the state’s medical cannabis program.
Previously, 66 percent of Georgia Republican primary voters said in a 2015 survey that they back medical cannabis legalization.
Top Pennsylvania Official Restores Marijuana Flag After GOP Lawmakers Allegedly Got It Removed
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s (D) marijuana and LGBTQ flags are waving again at his Capitol office after state officials removed them Monday night, allegedly at the behest of certain GOP lawmakers who feel strongly about the activist decor.
The day after their removal, the lieutenant governor proudly announced on Twitter that he’d restored the flags—one rainbow-themed and the other displaying cannabis leaves.
“I really can’t emphasize this enough, my issue isn’t with the individuals that came to take them down. They’re kind of caught in the middle of it so it’s not them,” Fetterman told Marijuana Moment. “But the Pennsylvania GOP exerted enough pressure and made enough drama so they felt that they needed to do something and they took them down. When I realized that, I just put them back up.”
I even had to rehang this one. 🙄 pic.twitter.com/NPuADtb1Lt
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 26, 2021
The flags have been an unusual source of controversy for some members of the legislature. In November, Republican lawmakers passed budget legislation that included a provision targeting his cannabis-themed office decor, making it so only the American flag, the Pennsylvania flag and those honoring missing soldiers could be displayed at the Capitol building.
It’s kinda flattering that they changed Pennsylvania law just for me. 🥺👉👈
Speaking of changing laws…
I’ll take them down when we get:
LEGAL WEED 🟩 FOR PA + EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW for LGBTQIA+ community in PA.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) November 20, 2020
“There’s one great way to get them down for good and we can end this,” the lieutenant governor said. And that’s by enacting legislative reform.
“It shouldn’t have to be this way. These are not controversial things. These are very fundamentally American things. It’s freedom-related. It’s individuality-related. It’s jobs. It’s revenue,” he said. “These are not controversial, but these flags are. For the party that thinks it’s A-OK to talk about how an election that was secure was rigged, they sure have a real thin skin when it comes to free speech.”
A spokesperson for the state Department of General Services confirmed to Marijuana Moment that it was tasked with removing the flags and did so “in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.” Asked whether lawmakers from the legislature’s Republican majority influenced the recent action, the representative repeated: “All I can say is the Department of General Services removed the flag in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.”
Marijuana Moment reached out to the offices of the Senate majority leader and House speaker for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.
Defying the flag order is par for the course for Fetterman, a longtime marijuana reform advocate who is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate. His enthusiastic embrace of the issue has often put him in the spotlight, and he said he’d take that advocacy to Congress if he ultimately decides to enter the race and is elected.
“I’m the only person that’s actually called out my own party for its failure to embrace it when it is appropriate,” he said, referring to his repeated criticism of the Democratic National Committee’s rejection of a pro-legalization platform. “There has never been—or would ever be—a more committed advocate to ending this awful superstition over a plant for the United States.”
🚨🚨 PENNSYLVANIA *AND* DNC IS BEING LAPPED ON LEGAL WEED BY THE DAKOTAS NOW
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 26, 2021
On his campaign website, the lieutenant governor touts his role in leading a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on the policy change. He noted that, following his efforts, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) “announced his support for legalization for the first time.”
It remains to be seen when legalization will happen in Pennsylvania, however. Despite Fetterman and Wolf’s support for legalization and the pressure they’re applying on lawmakers, convincing Republican legislative leaders to go along with the plan remains a challenge.
Fetterman previously told Marijuana Moment that pursuing reform through the governor’s budget request is a possibility. But in the meantime the administration is exploring the constitutionality of issuing “wholesale pardons for certain marijuana convictions and charges.”
Since adopting a pro-legalization position in 2019, Wolf has repeatedly called on the legislature to enact the policy change. He’s stressed that stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.
In September, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.
Fetterman previously said that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—where voters approved a legalization referendum in November—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously reform its cannabis laws.
He also hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.
Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Twitter/John Fetterman.
Hawaii Could Legalize Psychedelic Mushroom Therapy Under New Senate Bill
Hawaii could legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms for therapy under a newly filed bill in the state legislature.
The measure, if approved, would direct the state Department of Health to “establish designated treatment centers for the therapeutic administration of psilocybin and psilocyn,” two psychoactive substances produced by certain fungi.
It would also remove the two compounds from the state’s list of Schedule I controlled substances and create a seven-person psilocybin review panel to assess the impacts of the policy change.
Few other specifics are provided in the bill, SB 738, introduced in the state Senate on Friday. It doesn’t specify who would qualify for the therapy, for example, or how precisely the drugs—which remain federally illegal—would be administered. The legislation simply says the Department of Health “shall adopt rules” in accordance with state law.
The new legislation comes less than a year after Hawaii lawmakers introduced bills to begin studying the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms with the goal of eventually legalizing them, though those measures did not advance.
Entheogens—including other substances like ayahuasca and ibogaine—have emerged as a promising treatment for severe depression, anxiety and other conditions, although research remains ongoing.
In November, voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure to legalize psilocybin therapy that the state is now in the process of implementing.
The new Hawaii bill was introduced by Sens. Stanley Chang, Laura Clint Acasio, Les Ihara Jr. and Maile Shimabukuro, all Democrats. It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, according to the state legislature’s website.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 400 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
The Hawaii proposal is one of a growing number of broader reform bills to have been introduced across the country this year as the debate on drug policy moves beyond marijuana. A measure introduced in New York earlier this month would remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of any controlled substance, instead imposing a $50 fine. Similar measures are expected to be introduced in California and Washington State this year.
A Florida lawmaker recently announced plans to introduce legislation to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes in the state.
Lawmakers in New Jersey last month sent a bill to Gov. Phil Murphy (D) that would reduce criminal charges for the possession of psilocybin, but so far Murphy hasn’t signed the measure.
Voters, meanwhile, have been broadly supportive of drug reform measures in recent years. In addition to the psilocybin. measure, Oregon voters in November also approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs. Washington, D.C. voters overwhelmingly enacted a proposal to decriminalize the possession of psychedelics.
Despite the growing discussion of drug reform at statehouses across the country, some high-profile advocates are setting their sights on the 2022 election. Dr. Bronner’s CEO David Bronner, a key financial backer of successful reform efforts in Oregon, told Marijuana Moment last month that he’s expecting both Washington state and Colorado voters will see decriminalization or psilocybin therapy on their 2022 ballots.
Meanwhile, a new advocacy group is pushing Congress to allocate $100 million to support research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman
Minnesota Governor Urges Lawmakers To Pursue Marijuana Legalization Amid Budget Talks
The governor of Minnesota on Tuesday implored the legislature to look into legalizing marijuana as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice.
During a briefing focused on his budget proposal for the 2022-23 biennium, Gov. Tim Walz (D) was asked whether he is open to allowing sports betting in the state to generate tax revenue. He replied he wasn’t closing the door on that proposal, but said he is more interested in seeing lawmakers “take a look at recreational cannabis.”
Not only would tax revenue from adult-use marijuana “dwarf” those collected through sports betting, he said, but legalization would also help address “the equity issue and, quite honestly, the racial impact of our cannabis laws.”
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization below:
“I will say this, I will certainly leave open that possibility. Our neighboring states have done both of those things,” Walz said of legalizing sports gambling and cannabis. “I obviously recognize that that’s not a 100 percent slam dunk for people, and they realize that there’s cost associated with both. But my message would be is, I don’t think this is the time for me to say I’m shutting the door on anything.”
The Minnesota governor did say in 2019, however, that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Earlier this month, the House majority leader said he would again introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in the new session. And if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the reform, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said this month that “Senate Republicans remain the biggest obstacle to progress on this issue.”
“Minnesota’s current cannabis laws are doing more harm than good,” she told The Center Square. “By creating a regulatory framework we can address the harms caused by cannabis and establish a more sensible set of laws to improve our health care and criminal justice systems and ensure better outcomes for communities,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), for his part, said that while he would be “open to expanding medical use or hearing criminal justice reforms,” he doesn’t “believe fully legalized marijuana is right for the state.”
“Other states that have legalized marijuana are having issues with public safety,” he argued, “and we are concerned that we haven’t fully seen how this works with employment issues, education outcomes and mental health.”
Last month, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Another factor that might add pressure on lawmakers to enact the reform is the November vote in neighboring South Dakota to legalize adult-use cannabis.
Also next door, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is pushing lawmakers to enact marijuana reform and recently said that he is considering putting legalization in his upcoming budget request.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.