Democrats reclaimed control of the House on Tuesday, in the process seizing some seats held by Republicans lawmakers who were leaders on marijuana reform on Capitol Hill. Advocates have mixed feelings about what that could mean for cannabis in the 116th Congress.
Marijuana-friendly Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Scott Taylor (R-VA), Mike Coffman (R-CO) and Jason Lewis (R-MN) lost their reelection bids, among others. And while the Democratic victors of those midterm battles are generally supportive of efforts to reform federal marijuana laws, the loss of Republicans who’ve embraced cannabis reform could complicate efforts to move the ball forward on bipartisan legislation.
Here’s how the outgoing GOP congressmen contributed to marijuana reform:
Rohrabacher—Arguably the most vocal marijuana supporter on the Republican side of the House, Rohrabacher has sponsored an amendment that prohibits the Department of Justie from using federal funds to intervene in state legal medical marijuana programs since the early 2000s. He’s also introduced standalone legislation to amend the Controlled Substances Act to exempt individuals acting in compliance with state cannabis laws.
Curbelo—The congressman is the lead sponsor of a bill meant to amend an Internal Revenue Service code that bars marijuana businesses from making legitimate business deductions or receiving tax credits. This summer, Curbelo also became the lead GOP cosponsor of a bill that directs the federal government to study the impact of state legalization efforts on things like crime and public health.
Taylor—Though he’s taken less of a leadership role on the issue than Rohrabacher or Curbelo, Taylor has cosponsored a few marijuana reform bills, including the marijuana business tax legislation and another that would effectively end the federal prohibition of cannabis. He’s also said that legal marijuana can help lift rural Virginia communities out of poverty.
Coffman—Coffman, from legalized Colorado, has cosponsored numerous marijuana-related bills over the last seven years, including one to legalize industrial hemp and another to exempt individuals acting in compliance with state marijuana laws from the CSA and also federally reschedule cannabis.
Lewis—The congressman has criticized the war on drugs, believes that states should have the right to legalize medical cannabis and has cosponsored several bills aimed at reforming federal marijuana laws.
Don Murphy, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project and a former Republican state lawmaker from Maryland, is concerned about the loss of the GOP allies on Capitol Hill. He told Marijuana Moment that he expects House Democrats to “load up” cannabis legislation with “deal killing amendments the GOP Senate and President Trump won’t accept.”
He also said the message voters sent to pro-reform Republicans who lost on Election Day was that supporting cannabis reform alone isn’t enough to win the hearts of left-leaning reform advocates. It made it “difficult to suggest that drug policy is both good policy and good politics,” Murphy said. “Liberals will still hate you, but they’ll hate you less.”
That said, “Marijuana policy reform is still the right thing to do and is often more popular than the pols it shares the ballot with, so in that respect, it is also the right thing to do politically,” Murphy added.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who’s worked with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to promote marijuana reform and last month released a plan for Democrats to federally legalize cannabis in 2019, doesn’t think Tuesday’s losses will stop the bipartisan momentum that’s been building.
“I think we will continue to see more bipartisan progress because Republicans members of Congress, after the election results, I think are going to look for ways that they can support what their public wants and engage in bipartisan problem-solving,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment during a press call on Wednesday. “And we’ll give them opportunities for bipartisan problem-solving.”
“We’ve always embraced a bipartisan approach to this. I will continue to that—to reach out, to provide opportunities.”
Where Murphy, Blumenauer and others do agree, however, is that there will continue to be some Republican leadership on the issue, in spite of the fact that some of the more recognizable Republican faces of reform are leaving. Both pointed to Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), who earlier this year introduced an amendment to protect legal medical cannabis states from federal interference, as an example of someone who they expect to pick up the torch in a bigger way.
And having someone like Joyce lead the charge on marijuana from the GOP side of the aisle—as opposed to a lawmaker marred by controversy over Russia ties like Rohrabacher—could ultimately bolster reform efforts, giving Republicans a more palatable champion for cannabis legislation.
Blumenauer also said he expects new Republican faces to get behind federal cannabis reform now that anti-marijuana Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) has lost and will no longer control the House Rules Committee, where he’s repeatedly blocked votes on common sense marijuana legislation.
“I think when the House is able to have the Congress function in its role of oversight and legislation, more and more Republicans will take the opportunity to be on the side of their public,” he said.
Sessions’s loss in general represents one of the best pieces of news from the midterm elections for reform advocates, particularly for members of Congress on both sides who’ve been interested in passing legislation that would allow marijuana businesses to make valid tax deductions or extend protections against federal interference in legal medical cannabis states, for example.
It’s too early to tell how lawmakers will navigate marijuana reform after the new Congress is seated in January, but things could speed up quickly if outgoing Rohrabacher’s prediction comes true—that reform will be on the White House agenda now that the midterms are over. Blumenauer seemed to back up his colleague’s claim on the the call, telling another reporter that he’s also had “informal and formal” talks with White House officials that’s led him to a similar conclusion.
Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a panel during a presidential campaign stop in North Carolina on Friday where he and surrogates—rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen—discussed marijuana reform.
At one point, Cohen said that he was arrested after being caught smoking cannabis while he was in school but the police only charged him for littering—a discretionary decision that he said he likely wouldn’t have been afforded if he was black. He speculated that without that privilege, the incident could have cost him loans that allowed him to build his ice cream empire.
Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, opened the conversation by asking Killer Mike to weigh in on the impact of the drug war, particularly on communities of color.
The artist said the “war on drugs, we now know from history, has been a tremendous failure” and that it “was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people.”
He discussed the racist origins of prohibition, the role cannabis criminalization has played in mass incarceration and emphasized the need to include restorative justice in a legal marijuana system.
“But we have a greater opportunity, and the greater opportunity is this: marijuana is going to be legal in our lifetime,” he said. “Beyond getting a little stoned in the morning, which I didn’t do this morning because I knew I had to come see you guys, marijuana provides through hemp paper, alternative to plastics, it provides jobs, resources, dispensaries.”
Watch the conversation about cannabis, starting at about 11:20 into the video below:
“We have an opportunity this time to take the people that are exiting jail, have expunged records and creating a pathway as wide as this aisle directly to legal marijuana and creating economic sustainability in the same communities that were robbed of that opportunity,” he said.
“As for me and my stoner friends, we’ll be buying Ben & Jerry’s and voting for Bernard Sanders.”
Glover joked that Mike’s plan is the “real green new deal that we need right here,” riffing off the name of climate change agenda backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“What we’re talking about now is repairing the wrongs that were done on our communities, and we have a senator who’s going to be the president, who’s saying that we’re not only going to repair the wrongs of the war on drugs but we are going to bring back an era that we are organizing in our communities,” the actor said.
Cohen highlighted racial inequities in marijuana enforcement and broader societal structures, starting by noting that his parents were only able to enter the middle class with the help of a government program providing low-interest mortgages that black people were not entitled to. That program allowed him to go to a good school, he said, where he got busted for cannabis at one point.
“In the midst of getting my higher education, one summer I was smoking some pot with some friends on a beach and the cops caught us,” he said. “We were handcuffed and they took us to the station and they ended up giving us a ticket for littering a lighted cigarette butt on the ground.”
“But I am well aware that if I was black, I would’ve ended up with a criminal record that would have prevented me from getting the loans that we needed to start Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “It’s really clear to me that if I was black, there wouldn’t have been a Ben & Jerry’s. I’m conscious of that, I think about that, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m supporting Bernie because he’s going to put an end to that system.”
The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster for communities of color.
We will legalize marijuana, expunge past convictions and invest revenue from legal marijuana back into those communities. pic.twitter.com/x7xrzw1Eu4
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 21, 2019
Sanders closed the panel discussion by asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone arrested for marijuana, or were themselves arrested. He did a similar exercise at a campaign rally in South Carolina earlier this week.
After hands shot up, the senator said “this is what the war on drugs has done in this country.”
“It has criminalized so many people in this room. This is amazing,” he said. “The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions of people in this country and we’re going to end that war on drugs and we’re going to make marijuana legal.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota
A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.
Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.
“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.
The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.
Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.
Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.
“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”
Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.
It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.
“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches
With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.
In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”
As I said earlier this year, any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.https://t.co/Y1dOwgHbm2
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) September 20, 2019
The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.
Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.
Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.
While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.
Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.
“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”
“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”
Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”
The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.