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.
Kansas Medical Marijuana Hearings Cancelled After Senate GOP Leader Reroutes House-Passed Bill
A House-passed bill to legalize medical marijuana in Kansas seems to be in jeopardy, with GOP Senate leadership moving the legislation out of a committee and into a different panel where it may sit in legislative limbo, resulting in the cancellation of hearings that were scheduled to be held this week.
Advocates are concerned about the decision by Senate President Ty Masterson (R), who withdrew the cannabis reform legislation from the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee days before hearings were to be held on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was then re-referred to the Senate Interstate Cooperation Committee, which Masterson chairs and where the bill’s fate is unclear.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that medical marijuana legalization is off the table for Kansas in 2022, but it does seem to signal that the reform might need to be enacted through another vehicle, either in the legislature or at the ballot, as top Democratic lawmakers in the state are pursuing.
“We certainly hope that this action is just making sure that this bill meets any concerns that Senate leadership may have concerning this historic legislation,” Kevin Caldwell, a legislative manager at Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment. “This bill had widespread bipartisan support in the House last session. We hope Senate President Masterson quickly holds a committee hearing and advances this legislation.”
When the proposal was being advanced in the House last year during the first half of the two-year session, members amended an unrelated bill that previously cleared the Senate to make it the chamber’s vehicle for the policy change. Because of that, it was ruled “materially changed” last May and sent to the Senate for committee consideration.
Now there’s a question of whether lawmakers will be motivated to introduce another separate bill and try to move it through both chambers, requiring another House vote. The Senate president seemed to temper expectations in recent remarks, telling The Kansas City Star that “not a single member” of his caucus has expressed that the issue “was important to them.”
That’s not how Kansas Democrats feel, however. House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer (D) and Assistant Minority Leader Jason Probst (D) said this month that they will be introducing proposals to let voters decide on legalizing medical and adult-use marijuana in the state. At the time, Sawyer said he was “hopeful” that the legislature might separately advance the House-passed legalization measure.
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“The people of Kansas deserve to know if senators support the overwhelming majority of people who want to alleviate patients’ suffering with a medical cannabis program,” MPP’s Caldwell said. “Now is the time to show compassion to their fellow citizens and vote this bill out of committee.”
“Kansas is one of fourteen states left without a medical cannabis program,” he said. “We have faith that the Kansas Senate will pass this legislation this session and this is just another step in that process.”
Michael Pirner, Masterson’s communications director, told the Star that “medical marijuana legislation is not a priority of Senate leadership,” but did signal the issue may still be considered before the year is over.
“The subject matter has clearly matured and we expect it to be considered at some level this session,” he said. “There are many more pressing topics on the Senate agenda.”
The bill as drafted contains several significant restrictions, including a ban on smokeable cannabis. Members of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee did get a briefing on the issue at a meeting last week ahead of the expected, now-cancelled formal hearings before the panel.
Meanwhile, the constitutional amendment that the Democratic leaders are proposing would provide for a more comprehensive program that lawmakers would need to implement.
Gov. Laura Kelly (D), for her part, wants to see medical cannabis legalization enacted, and she said at a briefing with reporters on Friday that she “absolutely” thinks the bill could pass if “everything else doesn’t take up all the oxygen.”
She previously pushed a separate proposal that would legalize medical cannabis and use the resulting revenue to support Medicaid expansion, with Rep. Brandon Woodard (D) filing the measure on the governor’s behalf.
Kelly has she said she wants voters to put pressure on their representatives to get the reform passed.
The governor also said in 2020 that while she wouldn’t personally advocate for adult-use legalization, she wouldn’t rule out signing the reform into law if a reform bill arrived on her desk.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Marijuana Banking Bill Sponsor Says He’s ‘Gonna Get That Darn Thing Passed’ Before Leaving Office
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) is retiring from Congress at the end of this session, but he says that he’s going to work to pass his marijuana banking bill before his time on Capitol Hill comes to an end.
The congressman spoke to Colorado Public Radio last week about his decision not to run for reelection this November and his disappointment that, while the House has approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act five times now in some form, the Senate has failed to advance it under both Republican and Democratic leadership.
“That one still has me pretty irritated,” Perlmutter said, referring to the fact that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has effectively blocked his bipartisan legislation. When there was a GOP Senate majority, he was told the bill was “too big and too broad.” Then with a Democratic majority, he’s told that it’s “too narrow and too limited.”
Schumer and his colleagues who are working on a federal legalization bill have repeatedly said that they do not want to see the SAFE Banking Act pass before comprehensive reform is enacted that addresses equity issues. Supporters of the banking bill argue that the incremental policy change is necessary for promote public safety and, importantly, it stands a much stronger chance of getting to the president’s desk with bipartisan support.
Nonetheless, Perlmutter said he plans to spend his remaining months in office pushing to get the job done.
“I have not given up on that one,” he said. “I’m gonna get that darn thing passed this year while I still serve out my term.”
Listen to Perlmutter discuss the marijuana banking legislation, starting around 10:24 into the audio below:
Asked whether he thinks President Joe Biden would be inclined to sign the measure if it did get to his desk, the congressman said “absolutely.”
“Treasury Secretary [Janet] Yellen is somebody who has been talking to me about this for years,” he said. “I feel very good that it would pass. We’re at 47 states that have some level of marijuana use, all the territories and District of Columbia, and they need to have legitimate banking services.”
“It’s just a no brainer in my opinion,” he said. “And yeah, I’m a little bit irritated, but we’re gonna keep working on it and get it passed this year.”
The last attempt that Perlmutter made to enact the reform was by adding its language to a must-pass defense bill, but it was ultimately sidelined following bicameral negotiations and did not make it into the final version. The congressman told Marijuana Moment last month that he sees other potential vehicles to advance the bill and has spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about it.
Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.
Top Federal Drug Official Says ‘Train Has Left The Station’ On Psychedelics As Reform Movement Spreads
A top federal drug official says the “train has left the station” on psychedelics.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.
The comments came at a psychedelics workshop Volkow’s agency cohosted with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) last week.
The NIDA official said that, to an extent, it’s been overwhelming to address new drug trends in the psychedelics space. But at the same time, she sees “an incredible opportunity to also modify the way that we are doing things.”
“What is it that the [National Institutes of Health] can do to help accelerate research in this field so that we can truly understand what are the potentials, and ultimately the application, of interventions that are bought based on psychedelic drugs?” Volkow said.
The director separately told Marijuana Moment on Friday in an emailed statement that part of the challenge for the agency and researchers is the fact that psychedelics are strictly prohibited as Schedule I drugs under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
“Researchers must obtain a Schedule I registration which, unlike obtaining registrations for Schedule II substances (which include fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine), is administratively challenging and time consuming,” she said. “This process may deter some scientists from conducting research on Schedule I drugs.”
“In response to concerns from researchers, NIDA is involved in interagency discussions to facilitate research on Schedule I substances,” Volkow said, adding that the agency is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.
“It will also be important to streamline the process of obtaining Schedule I registrations to further the science on these substances, including examining their therapeutic potential,” she said.
At Thursday’s event, the official talked about how recent, federally funded surveys showed that fewer college-aged adults are drinking alcohol and are instead opting for psychedelics and marijuana. She discussed the findings in an earlier interview with Marijuana Moment as well.
Don't miss out on the @NIDAnews, @NIAAAnews, & @NIMHgov-sponsored virtual Workshop on Psychedelics as Therapeutics: Gaps, Challenges, and Opportunities, Jan. 12‒13, 2022. Learn more and register: https://t.co/S1zttkoYXq pic.twitter.com/C2Qrk6FN9a
— NIDAnews (@NIDAnews) January 10, 2022
“Let’s learn from history,” she said. “Let’s see what we have learned from the marijuana experience.”
While studies have found that marijuana use among young people has generally remained stable or decreased amid the legalization movement, there has been an increase in cannabis consumption among adults, she said. And “this is likely to happen [with psychedelics] as more and more attention is placed on these psychedelic drugs.”
“I think, to a certain extent, with all the attention that the psychedelic drugs have attracted, the train has left the station and that people are going to start to use it,” Volkow said. “People are going to start to use it whether [the Food and Drug Administration] approves or not.
There are numerous states and localities where psychedelics reform is being explored and pursued both legislatively and through ballot initiative processes.
On Wednesday—during the first part of the two-day federal event that saw nearly 4,000 registrants across 21 time zones—NIMH Director Joshua Gordon stressed that his agency has “been supporting research on psychedelics for some time.”
Tune in today and tomorrow for the @NIH workshop on Psychedelics as Therapeutics, which will examine findings on psychoplastogens for treating depression, post-traumatic stress, and substance and alcohol use disorders. https://t.co/Qzxte5xJt9
— Joshua A. Gordon (@NIMHDirector) January 12, 2022
“We can think of NIMH’s interests in studying psychedelics both in terms of proving that they work and also in terms of demonstrating the mechanism by which they work,” he said. “NIMH has a range of different funding opportunity announcements and other expressions that are priorities aimed at a mechanistic focus and mechanistic approach to drug development.”
Meanwhile, Volkow also made connections between psychedelics and the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. She said, for example, that survey data showing increased use of psychedelics “may be a way that people are using to try to escape” the situation.
But she also drew a metaphor, saying that just as how the pandemic “forced” federal health officials to accelerate the development and approval of COVID-19 vaccines because of the “urgency of the situation,” one could argue that “actually there is an urgency to bring treatments [such as emerging psychedelic medicines] for people that are suffering from severe mental illness which can be devastating.”
But as Volkow has pointed out, the Schedule I classification of these substances under federal law inhibits such research and development.
The official has also repeatedly highlighted and criticized the racial disparities in drug criminalization enforcement overall.