Connect with us

Politics

What Joe Biden’s Presidential Victory Means For Marijuana In 2021

Published

on

Joe Biden has been projected to have won the presidential election by several major news organizations. If that sticks when all the votes are certified, and if he fulfills a key campaign promise once he gets to the White House, federal marijuana reform will be part of his administration’s legacy.

Although the Democratic former vice president has embraced decriminalizing cannabis possession, expunging past records and other modest moves, he has faced criticism over his record pushing punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in the Senate. And reform advocates have similarly taken him to task over his refusal to join the majority of U.S. voters and a supermajority of those in his own party in embracing broad adult-use marijuana legalization.

But the political dynamics that will define marijuana policy in 2021 go beyond the presidency. Despite the stated pro-reform positions of both Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)—who has her own questionable record on cannabis criminalization but became the sponsor of a comprehensive legalization bill in 2019—the fate of reform still rests largely on Congress.

But it’s unclear at this point which party will control the Senate next year, with news outlets still not ready to project the results of several races and two Georgia seats appearing to be headed for January runoffs.

Democratic leaders have pledged an end to federal marijuana prohibition, and if the party wins the majority, the stage will be set for far-reaching reform.

But if Republicans maintain control of the Senate, there will be serious doubt about what kind of pull a Biden administration could have in moving marijuana legislation—even if he prioritized the issue, which remains to be seen. The past two years have shown time and again that the GOP-controlled chamber is simply unwilling to address the issue in a meaningful way.

Unlike President Trump, Biden has said on the campaign trail that his administration will pursue marijuana decriminalization and expungements for people with prior cannabis convictions. He also favors medical cannabis legalization, modestly rescheduling marijuana under federal law and letting states set their own policies without federal intervention.

“We should decriminalize marijuana,” he said during a town hall event last month, adding, “I don’t believe anybody should be going to jail for drug use.”

But at that same event, he again offered his vision for an alternative to incarceration for drug crimes that many advocates oppose: forced drug treatment.

In any case, the likelihood of marijuana reform under a Biden administration seems more promising than if Trump were to be reelected, if not for anything but the lack of clear commitments the incumbent has made on the issue during his last four years.

While Trump has voiced support for medical cannabis and said he is in favor of bipartisan legislation to protect states that legalize marijuana from federal intervention, he has not pledged any specific reforms himself. Nor does it seem he has pushed Republican lawmakers to prioritize the issue.

As noted, Biden will also be joined by Harris when he enters the Oval Office. The senator—who has been criticized over her former prosecutorial record pursuing low-level cannabis cases as a California district attorney and for campaigning against legalization in her own state—became the lead Senate sponsor of a comprehensive bill to end federal prohibition last year.

She made much of the need to legalize cannabis during her own unsuccessful run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. However, her statements on the issue have been tempered since she agreed to run alongside Biden, choosing instead to focus on his more limited decriminalization and expungements plan.

Harris said last month that she has a “deal” with Biden to candidly share her perspective on a range of progressive policies he currently opposes, including legalizing marijuana, but she hasn’t indicated that she would proactively push him in that direction. The senator also said that month that the administration would have “a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”

Even so, given Biden’s former hostile approach to drug policy as a legislator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that the overwhelming share of Democrats 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.

He did proudly author the infamous 1994 Crime Bill—legislation that increased penalties for drug-related crimes and is considered a main facilitator of mass incarceration—after all, as well as several 1980s-era anti-drug bills. That record is a point that Trump’s reelection campaign had seized on, calling Biden the “architect” of the drug war.

Biden, for his part, has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation was a “mistake.”

That said, shortly after becoming the party’s 2020 nominee, the former vice president’s ongoing opposition to recreational legalization is suspected of being at least partly behind the Democratic National Committee platform committee’s vote against adding the reform as a 2020 party plank in July.

So it may be incumbent upon Congress to advance broad legalization after he takes office. And the likelihood of that happening will hinge largely on the makeup of the Senate.

If Democrats reclaim control of the chamber, those chances will be significantly bolstered. Senate leadership in this current Congress has been opposed to taking up reform. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), for example, is an adamant opponent of loosening laws on marijuana, all but ensuring that reform bills would not stand a chance in his chamber even as he has championed hemp legalization. Even modest House-passed legislation focused on banking access for cannabis businesses never received a vote.

With Democrats back at the reigns, they would be positioned to bring any number of cannabis bills that have been introduced to the floor, including those calling for the end of federal marijuana prohibition. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the current top Democrat in the chamber, who would be expected to be installed as the majority leader come January if the party wins enough of the outstanding races, said last month that he will put his own descheduling bill “in play” and that “I think we’ll have a good chance to pass it.”

Leadership in the House, which is expected to maintain a Democratic majority, albeit a reduced one, has already signaled their intention of advancing cannabis reform.

The chamber was expected to hold a floor vote on a comprehensive legalization bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—in September, but it was ultimately postponed after certain centrist Democrats argued the optics of passing the bill would be bad for them before approving another coronavirus relief package. Leadership has since committed to voting on the legislation, which also contains provisions to fund programs to repair some of the harms of the war on drugs, later this fall.

With a Democratic-controlled Senate and the party still in control of the House, it stands to reason that cannabis reform would move in the 117th Congress, even if the pace of that reform and the administration’s role in promoting it remain uncertain.

But if Republicans maintain their majority, the party’s approach to cannabis to date does not indicate leaders would be ready to embrace far-reaching reforms such as the MORE Act. That said, it is possible that banking-focused marijuana legislation—which despite its having stalled so far in the Senate, has significant bipartisan support among the rank and file in both chambers—could move.

It is also not entirely out of the question that a scaled-down proposal to simply protect people complying with state marijuana laws from federal interference—likely without the social equity and restorative justice components of Schumer’s bill or the MORE Act—could see the light of day. That possibility is boosted by the fact that voters in several Republican and swing states approved cannabis ballot measures on Election Day. Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the party’s whip, for example, now represents constituents who voted to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana by solid margins.

That said, the most vocal GOP advocate for marijuana reform in the Senate won’t be returning to Capitol Hill next year. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who unsuccessfully led efforts to convince his party to allow cannabis legislation to come to the floor for a vote in the 116th Congress, lost his reelection bid. With him not being around to prod McConnell to consider the issue, it would be up to other lawmakers—perhaps Sens. Steve Daines (R-MT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) or Rand Paul (R-KY)—to make the case to leaders that the issue is a winning one worth advancing.

Outside of Congress, Biden 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, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

But in the end, while Biden has come around to the idea of removing criminal penalties for marijuana possession, and he is now advocating for clearing the records of those who’ve been punished for such crimes, his longstanding record of opposing reform and embracing punitive drug policies continue to leave questions about what actions he’ll be willing to take post-election.

He remains out of step with the majority of his party and U.S. voters more broadly on the question of legalization, and it doesn’t seem likely that cannabis reform would be at the top of his agenda. That said, his recent pivot in favor of decriminalization and medical cannabis legalization indicates that he recognizes that a tough-on-crime approach to drugs is no longer politically acceptable to voters and signals that further evolution in his position on cannabis is possible.

Seven In Ten Americans Support Marijuana Legalization, New Gallup Poll Shows

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Marijuana Bill Up For House Vote Could ‘Reverse’ Federal-State Policy Gap, Congressional Research Service Says

Published

on

A bill to federally legalize marijuana that is scheduled for a House vote next week could “reverse” the current cannabis policy gap that exists between states and the federal government, a new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report says.

In an analysis of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that was published on Wednesday, CRS described the various complications resulting from ongoing federal prohibition as more states opt to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. The research agency said the legislation could inadvertently create a new schism where federal policy would be more progressive than those of certain states.

That’s because the bill does not require states to stop criminalizing cannabis, and so jurisdictions with prohibition still on the books could continue to punish people over marijuana even as such activity is legalized at the federal level.

“If the MORE Act became law, it could create a new divide between federal and state law—essentially the reverse of the current marijuana policy gap, since federal marijuana law would become less strict than some state laws,” CRS wrote. “The MORE Act could also highlight the inconsistency between marijuana laws in different U.S. jurisdictions by repealing the uniform federal prohibition and leaving in place a patchwork of varying state laws.”

The MORE Act, whose lead sponsor is Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a federal five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.

The legislation would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

“Congress may be content to allow states to experiment with varying approaches to marijuana regulation,” CRS said. “In the alternative, Congress might prefer a more uniform approach, whether that approach is to criminalize or decriminalize marijuana, or something in between. However, while Congress can pass legislation creating a uniform federal policy, there are limits to its ability to affect state law.”

The agency said that while lawmakers lack the “constitutional authority to alter state criminal law,” they could “preempt state law through Commerce Clause legislation” or “encourage states to change their laws through the use of the spending power.”

To that end, while the MORE Act does not create a federal regulatory structure for cannabis or force states to change their own laws, it does include provisions that incentivize the adoption certain local reform policies. For example, it offers federal funding for “eligible states” that take steps to expunge prior cannabis convictions and stop penalizing people on parole for marijuana-related offenses.

“Congress could also invoke its spending power to encourage states to regulate marijuana more stringently, and has previously used the spending power to shape drug policy in targeted ways,” CRS said.

These and other considerations will likely be the subject of significant debate when the House takes up the MORE Act next week.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced on Friday that the bill will be taken on the floor as soon as Wednesday.

He had previously said this summer that the chamber would vote on the legislation in September, but that plan was postponed following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing cannabis reform before passing another coronavirus relief package.

The bill cleared Nadler’s more than a year ago and has been awaiting floor action since.

Even if the far-reaching reform 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, at least during this Congress. 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 will not necessarily proactively push the former vice president to evolve further on cannabis reform.

Given 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 achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For what it’s worth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

CRS, in its new report, also discussed broader drug policy reform efforts taking place at the state level and locally, such as Oregon’s recent vote to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs. The agency noted moves to decriminalize psychedelics specifically in Washington, D.C., too.

These “current trends suggest that there may be a broader movement toward decriminalizing controlled substances,” CRS said. “Comprehensively addressing such changes is outside the scope of the MORE Act, but Congress may wish to monitor developments in this area when considering future legislation.”

Mexico’s President Says Legal Marijuana Is About Freedom, As Legislation Advances In Congress

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
Continue Reading

Politics

Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill Will Get A Congressional Vote Next Week, Leader Announces

Published

on

A bill to federally legalize marijuana will receive a full floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives next week, a top Democratic leader in the chamber announced on Friday.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said the chamber will take up the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act some time between Wednesday and Friday. The floor schedule announcement comes weeks after the leader first confirmed that the House would advance the proposal before the year’s end.

Early in the week, the bill is first expected to go before the House Rules Committee, which prepares legislation for floor action and decides which amendments can be made in order for consideration by the full body.

Hoyer previously said that the chamber would vote on the legislation in September, but that plan was postponed following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing cannabis reform before passing another coronavirus relief package. Several moderates ended up losing their reelection races this month on the same dat that voters in several red states approved legalization measures, however, raising questions about their strategic thinking on the politics of marijuana.

“I’ve been working on this issue longer than any politician in America and can confidently say that the MORE Act is the most comprehensive federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said in a press release. “Our vote to pass it next week will come after people in five very different states reaffirmed the strong bipartisan support to reform the failed cannabis prohibition. National support for federal cannabis legalization is at an all-time high and almost 99 percent of Americans will soon live in states with some form of legal cannabis.”

“Congress must capitalize on this momentum and do our part to end the failed policy of prohibition that has resulted in a long and shameful period of selective enforcement against communities of color,” he said.

The House approving the bill during the presidential transition could also raise the pressure on President-elect Joe Biden to embrace legalization—a policy he’s declined to adopt despite supermajority support among Democratic voters.

As currently written, the MORE Act, whose lead sponsor is Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a federal five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.

The legislation would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

All of those provisions are subject to change through amendments over the coming week.

“This floor vote represents the first congressional roll call ever on the question of ending federal marijuana criminalization,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “By advancing the MORE Act, the House of Representatives sends an unmistakable signal that America is ready to close the book marijuana prohibition and end the senseless oppression and fear that this failed policy wreaks on otherwise law-abiding citizens.”

“Americans are ready to responsibly legalize and regulate marijuana, and this vote shows some lawmakers are finally listening,” he said.

The bill cleared Nadler’s more than a year ago and has been awaiting floor action since.

Even if the far-reaching reform 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, at least during this Congress. 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 will not necessarily proactively push the former vice president to evolve further on cannabis reform.

Given 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 achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For what it’s worth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

Marijuana Legalization Opponents Ask Courts To Overturn Voters’ Will In Several States

Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
Continue Reading

Politics

Two-Track Effort To Allow Psychedelic Mushrooms In Washington State Launches Amid Broader Drug Decrim Push

Published

on

Drug reform advocates won big in Oregon this year, with separate ballot measures to decriminalize possession of all drugs and legalize psychedelic mushrooms for therapeutic use passing on Election Day. Now organizers are setting their sights on similar reforms next door in Washington State with two newly announced efforts.

One seeks to utilize existing administrative mechanisms to expand access to psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use by patients in end-of-life care. The other, a proposed ballot initiative on track for 2022, would put Washington on par with Oregon, decriminalizing small-scale possession of all drugs and legalizing mushrooms for broader therapeutic use.

These efforts come after advocates already announced a separate plan to lobby lawmakers to pass a bill decriminalizing all drugs in 2021.

A healthcare professional is behind the first new psilocybin push via the administrative route. Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, a Seattle physician who specializes in end-of-life care, is hoping to win permission from state and federal regulators to cultivate psilocybin mushrooms and use them to treat patients.

“We know that it’s a naturally occurring substance that we can cultivate safely, we know how to dose it, and there’s really good reason to believe it can help,” Aggarwal said of psilocybin, the main active ingredient in entheogenic mushrooms.

Aggarwal and his clinic, the Advanced Integrative Medical Science Institute, hope to secure legal access to psilocybin for end-of-life patients under state and federal laws that allow patients with terminal diseases to try investigational medications that haven’t been generally approved.

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the federal “Right to Try Act,” which would give certain patients access to drugs that have not yet been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for broad use. Psilocybin, along with marijuana and MDMA, appears to fit the criteria for the law, including having completed a phase 1 clinical trial and being under active development. Washington State adopted a similar law in 2017.

In September, Aggarwal applied to the Washington State Department of Health’s Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission for a license to grow psilocybin mushrooms with the eventual goal of using them to treat patients in palliative care. The state commission has yet to review the application, Kaiser Health News reported this week.

Aggarwal would also need to obtain approval from the federal government, namely the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “We’re still working on formulating an application to them,” he told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview, adding that his team is consulting with lawyers for guidance.

As for a timeline on the applications? “I wish I could tell you,” Aggarwal said. “There’s really no way to know. This has never been tried before that we’re aware of.”

Meanwhile, more sweeping statewide reform could come in the form of a 2022 ballot question. A top backer of both of Oregon’s successful drug-reform initiatives recently said Washington is the next state on his list.

David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s soap company, has long bankrolled drug reform campaigns. In Oregon last election, he gave $3.4 million to Measure 109, which legalized psilocybin for therapeutic use, and $1 million to Measure 110, which decriminalized all drugs.

Bronner recently told the Daily Beast that he’d like to see Washington voters pass both reforms—medical psilocybin and broader drug decriminalization—in a single initiative on the state’s 2022 ballot.

“It’s moving faster than I would’ve thought,” he said. “I would not have thought we’d be ready for the kind of reforms we’re seeing, and it’s gratifying. I just think we can go further in 2022 and 2024.”

Bronner added that he hopes to team up with other drug-reform funders, such as Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros, to maximize their policy impact. “If we all line up as one grand coalition, we can run twice as many ballot measures in a given cycle,” he told the Daily Beast. “We’re working hard on figuring that out.”

In the meantime, another group of activists in the state are continuing their push for drug decriminalization. Treatment First Washington hopes to see lawmakers take up a proposed decriminalization measure next year that closely resembles Oregon’s Measure 110.

The group originally planned to qualify the Washington measure for the 2020 election, but organizers stopped collecting signatures in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As with Oregon’s recently passed decriminalization measure, Treatment First Washington’s proposal would remove criminal penalties for drug possession, expand treatment for substance misuse and pay for that treatment with tax revenue from the state’s legal cannabis industry.

Aggarwal, the Seattle doctor applying to cultivate mushrooms, said that any of the reform efforts would likely help expand access for his patients.

“This effort would definitely be a lot easier if we had decriminalization,” he said, explaining that treatment could work similarly to how the clinic currently deals with marijuana.

“We kind of do this with cannabis in our office already,” he said. “People can do cannabis-assisted therapy sessions where they bring their own, and there’s a vaporizer and they can have a session with a decriminalized drug.”

Aggarwal said he filed the application because dying patients can’t wait for broader reform through the legislature or the ballot box.

“We just don’t have time to wait for that for patients who are sick now,” he said. “These are patients that really have exhausted legally available psychedelic-assisted therapy, which is ketamine, and I think there’s still a need for more… They need help now and not in 2022.”

Marijuana Legalization Opponents Ask Courts To Overturn Voters’ Will In Several States

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Marijuana News In Your Inbox

Support Marijuana Moment

Marijuana News In Your Inbox

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!