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Is Mitch McConnell Stepping Down Good For Marijuana Reform? It Depends Who Replaces Him



Many cannabis advocates and stakeholders were quick to cheer news that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will be stepping down from his leadership post later this year. But while it might seem like a positive development for the marijuana movement at first glance, a look at the records of his potential GOP replacements signals that reform efforts will likely continue to face resistance from the party’s leadership.

McConnell, the longest-serving Senate leader in history, has earned a reputation as a vociferously anti-marijuana member—despite his work championing the legalization of hemp under the 2018 Farm Bill. He’s firmly opposed even modest marijuana reform, proactively preventing the advancement of bipartisan legislation to ease cannabis businesses’ access to the banking system, for example.

That record helps explain the enthusiasm of the industry after he announced his retirement from leadership last week. But, so far, there has been little public analysis of the cannabis policy records of his potential successors.

Members who’ve indicated they will be throwing their hat in the ring include Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) and former Whip John Cornyn (R-TX).

Former President Donald Trump has reportedly been pushing Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), to join the race. That would no doubt be welcomed by the cannabis industry given his chief sponsorship of marijuana banking reform legislation, but the senator has not committed to seeking the leadership position.

First, a look at McConnell’s record.

As majority leader, McConnell did help usher in the federal legalization of hemp—a crop that he hoped Kentucky farmers and businesses would capitalize on. But he has been clear that he’s no fan of marijuana, which he calls hemp’s “illicit cousin, which I choose not to embrace.”

After Democrats reclaimed control of the Senate, promoting Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to majority leader, McConnell took credit for helping to quash efforts to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act through a large-scale defense bill.

He’s routinely criticized Democrats’ marijuana position, condemning then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in 2020 for calling cannabis a potential therapeutic in the treatment of the COVID. And the year prior, McConnell accepted an honorary machete that was used to chop down “thousands” of marijuana plants.

To be sure, the legalization of hemp under McConnell’s leadership is a critical piece of his cannabis legacy. But for advocates and stakeholders, it’s a record besmirched by an obstinate refusal to go any further, even if that simply meant freeing up industry banking access under legislation that has cleared the House in bipartisan fashion in some form at least seven times now.

Even so, the GOP leader’s potential successors aren’t exactly allies of the movement, either:

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD)

As the Senate moved to advance a marijuana legalization bill in 2021, Thune said that cannabis reform is “something we’ll probably have to grapple with here.” But he’s consistently opposed even modest proposals to allow marijuana industry banking.

He called the Democratic-controlled House proposal to include cannabis banking reform in a large-scale coronavirus relief bill “crazy stuff” in 2020, complaining in a floor speech that the text of the underlying legislation mentions “cannabis” more times than “jobs.”

“In case Democrats didn’t realize, Americans aren’t suffering from a lack of cannabis right now,” Thune said. “They’re suffering from a lack of employment.”

He also said that Democrats’ push to advance a marijuana legalization bill was a “great illustration of the gap in priorities.”

“While Republicans are continuing to negotiate on COVID relief, Democrats are holding votes on a Tiger King bill & legalizing cannabis,” he said. “Let’s get serious & do our job for Americans.”

Back in 2014, Thune said that while he understands that “people have strong opinions on both sides of this debate, I do not support legalizing the use of marijuana.”

“Currently, the medical benefits from the use of marijuana are still inconclusive, and I believe that we must be careful not to increase the availability of marijuana and the use of marijuana for non-medical reasons,” the senator said in a constituent letter. “However, I support the development of alternative medications that will provide relief to patients without opening the door to substance abuse.”

The next year, he called legalization a “dangerous path,” adding that voters who enacted the reform in Colorado are “going to pay a price for it.”

In 2021, Thune acknowledged that cannabis is an “area that’s still evolving, and our country’s views on it are evolving,” adding that “how we deal with it nationally I think is still an open question.”

For what it’s worth, voters in Thune’s home state of South Dakota approved a marijuana legalization initiative at the ballot in 2020, but it was overturned by the state Supreme Court. Voters subsequently rejected a 2022 legalization proposal.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)

Like Thune, Cornyn has tentatively acknowledged that federal marijuana policy should be evaluated, calling the cash-intensive nature of the cannabis industry “a real threat” in 2019.

However, he said that the Senate should first hold a hearing on the “public health consequences” of ending cannabis prohibition before advancing legislation to resolve the financial services problem.

Cornyn characterized Schumer’s plan to advance cannabis banking legislation last summer as “wishful thinking.”

He later led a letter to Senate leadership that argued the Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation (SAFER) Banking Act would result in the cannabis industry producing higher potency products that would be harmful to youth and compromise “the integrity of the United States banking system.”

Despite having repeatedly talked about the importance of promoting cannabis research, Cornyn objected to advancing a bill to accomplish that on an expedited basis in 2022.

He also raised an objection to attaching an intelligence bill to the National Defense Authorization Act in 2022 if it included a Democratic-led provision to prevent security clearance denials over marijuana alone.

Cornyn also said in 2019 that claims about the therapeutic potential of marijuana remind him of decades-old tobacco industry advertisements asserting that the product had medical benefits. And last year, he tweeted a link to an article claiming that “many Americans wrongly believe exposure to marijuana smoke is safer than tobacco.”

“From 1999 to 2020, more than 920,000 Americans died from a drug overdose,” Corny said in a 2021 constituent letter. “I am concerned that marijuana legalization could make this epidemic worse.”

As noted, Daines’s name has also been floated a possible contender for the leadership position.

In stark contrast with Thune and Cornyn, Daines is the prime GOP Senate sponsor of the SAFER Banking Act to allow cannabis businesses to access traditional financial services.

However, as the chair of the NRSC, Daines is reportedly focused on ensuring the party’s success in the upcoming election and doesn’t have immediate plans to compete for the leadership spot, Axios reported.

Also, while Daines’s sponsorship of the cannabis banking bill makes him stand out among the other leadership contenders, he has taken pains to distance himself from the broader push for federal legalization.

Daines also filed legislation last September to prevent federal agencies from rescheduling cannabis without tacit approval from Congress amid an ongoing review directed by the Biden administration.

Daines, Thune, Cornyn and McConnell all voted last year to block legislation focused on expanding research on the benefits of medical cannabis for military veterans from advancing on the Senate floor.

An initial version of this story included an analysis of GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso’s (R-WY) marijuana policy record, but the senator has since announced he will not be running for the top leadership spot.

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Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

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