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What The New Democratic-Controlled Senate Means For Federal Marijuana Legalization In 2021

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The Senate will vote to pass a bill to federally legalize marijuana within the next two years.

That’s according to the top Democratic lawmaker who is expected to be installed as majority leader following his party’s projected clean sweep in this week’s two Georgia runoff elections that will give them control of the chamber.

Coupled with Joe Biden’s presidential win, the new situation on Capitol Hill means that federal cannabis policy change is in the cards for the 117th Congress. While the former vice president has declined to embrace adult-use legalization, he’s pledged to adopt modest reforms such as marijuana decriminalization and expunging past records.

And a push from House and Senate Democratic leadership—who are already on record with pledges to advance far-reaching marijuana reforms—could lead to the comprehensive changes that advocates have been fighting for, including the advancement of a federal cannabis descheduling bill that cleared the House last month.

Presidential politics notwithstanding, it’s always been the case that it would be largely incumbent upon legislators to advance cannabis reform. And the chances of their success in doing so in recent years has hinged largely on the makeup of the Senate.

Because Democrats have now reclaimed control of the chamber, those chances are significantly bolstered. Senate leadership in the 116th Congress had declined repeated opportunities to hold votes on marijuana reform legislation. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in particular has been an adamant opponent of loosening federal laws on marijuana.

Even modest, bipartisan legislation to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators had languished in the GOP-controlled Senate after clearing the House multiple times. McConnell’s office recently released a recap of the latest round of coronavirus relief legislation and celebrated its exclusion of the cannabis banking language.

Meanwhile, the most significant piece of cannabis legislation to advance out of the Senate in recent history is the 2018 Farm Bill that contained provisions to federally legalize hemp and its derivatives, which McConnell had championed.

Democrats are now poised to advance any number of more substantial cannabis bills, including those calling for the end of federal marijuana prohibition. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the current top Democrat in the Senate, who is expected to be installed as the majority leader, said in October that he will put his own descheduling bill “on the floor” and that he thinks “we’ll have a good chance to pass it.”

Schumer reiterated in a more recent interview that if he becomes majority leader, a legalization bill will “pass” and “it’ll get Democratic and Republican votes.”

But it still remains to be seen to what extent the Democratic leader can bring along the more moderate members of his caucus—Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), for example—when it comes to cannabis reform. Schumer did point out in his recent comments that voters in several conservative states approved legalization ballot initiatives in the November election, highlighting that support crosses party and ideological lines.

For what it’s worth, the two incoming senators from Georgia are both in favor of comprehensive marijuana reform.

Sen.-elect Jon Ossoff (D-GA), who defeated Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), said he will push for the policy change in the Senate—and he made that proposal part of his pitch to young people on social media. Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock (D-GA), who ousted Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), has frequently discussed the failures of the war on drugs and his support for cannabis reform.

The House, which remains in Democratic control albeit with a reduced majority after November’s elections, has already made clear that it’s ready for federal marijuana policy change.

The chamber approved a comprehensive legalization bill—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—last month, for example.

“Reform advocates have established over the past two years that we possess both sufficient allies and votes in the House of Representatives to substantively reform America’s failed marijuana laws, specifically to remove the cannabis plant from its Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, said.

“Unfortunately, under GOP Senate leadership, these and many other important reform bills were dead on arrival. By contrast, Democratic leaders in the upper chamber…have already pledged publicly to debate and advance most all of these important reforms, including legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition via descheduling,” he said. “We look forward to working with soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Schumer…to advance legislation with haste.”

With an incoming Democratic-controlled Senate and the party still in control of the House, it’s likely that cannabis reform will move in the 117th Congress. But the Biden administration’s role in promoting those reforms remains an open question.

The president-elect has faced significant criticism over his record pushing punitive anti-drug legislation during his own time in the Senate—something he now admits was a “mistake.” And reform advocates have similarly expressed frustration over his refusal to embrace adult-use cannabis legalization.

Biden has only gone so far as to back modest cannabis rescheduling, decriminalizing possession, expunging past records, legalizing medical marijuana and protecting states’ rights to enact their own policies.

On Wednesday, it was reported that the president-elect will nominate Judge Merrick Garland—a former Obama Supreme Court nominee who was blocked by Senate Republicans—to serve as attorney general.

There’s limited public information on Garland’s position on marijuana policy, but advocates have expressed concerns about statements he made in a 2013 federal appeals case concerning cannabis scheduling, where he seemed to indicate that there should be deference to the Drug Enforcement Administration when it comes to science that determines the federal classification of cannabis.

But Biden also recently selected a nominee for secretary of health and human services (HHS) who is amenable to reform, however, and in his role he could help facilitate rescheduling. While the Justice Department plays a key role in marijuana’s federal scheduling, a medical and scientific review by HHS is binding on the attorney general’s subsequent classification decision.

With the weight of a Democratic Congress that has signaled a willingness to pursue legalization, the pressure will be on for him to assume a proactive role in promoting reform—or at least the very least not discourage lawmakers from sending marijuana bills to his desk and then signing them when they arrive there.

While Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has been the lead sponsor of the companion Senate version of the House-passed MORE Act, she has signaled that she won’t necessarily press Biden on the issue.

In any case, a Democratic-controlled Congress led by legislators who have pledged to prioritize reform is a good indication that cannabis legislation will move in 2021. The extent to which it moves—and the response of the president—is less certain, for now.

New York Lawmakers File Marijuana Legalization Bill For 2021 Session

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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

Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In Committee

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A bill to decriminalize marijuana possession in Texas—as well as a separate proposal to reduce penalties for possessing cannabis concentrates—advanced out of a key House committee on Friday.

These are the latest developments that have come after a week where Texas lawmakers have considered a medley of marijuana reform measures. But arguably the most significant piece of cannabis legislation to move out of committee would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a class C misdemeanor that carries a fine but no threat of jail time.

The full House of Representatives approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session.

This time around, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee approved the decriminalization bill, which would also prevent law enforcement from making arrests over low-level possession. Other decriminalization proposals that were under consideration by the panel this week would not prohibit that enforcement action, which is key because police are currently able to incarcerate people who are arrested for class C misdemeanors even though the charge itself does not carry the risk of jail time in sentencing.

The advancing legislation, HB 441, sponsored by Rep. Erin Zwiener (D), would also prevent the loss of a driver’s license or the creation of a criminal record for possession of up to one ounce.

Separately, the committee advanced legislation to make possession of up to two ounces of cannabis concentrates a class B misdemeanor.

Both bills were among the subjects a lengthy hearing the panel held on Tuesday.

“Marijuana bills are moving through the committee process at record speed this session,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “There’s good reason to be optimistic about the upcoming votes and the House and advocates will be doubling down their efforts to influence senators.”

This action comes one day after the House Public Health Committee unanimously approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program.

Sponsored by Chairwoman Stephanie Klick (R), the bill would add cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (for veterans only) as conditions that could qualify people for the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

It would further allow the Department of State Health Services to add more qualifying conditions via administrative rulemaking. And it would also raise the THC cap for medical marijuana products from 0.5 percent to five percent.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 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.

On Thursday, the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee also discussed legislation that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products.

While the Texas legislature has historically resisted most cannabis reforms, there are signs that this session may be different.

House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said during a Texas Young Republicans event last month that while he wouldn’t be able to distinguish marijuana from oregano, he said, “I understand the issue.”

The speaker said that he voted for a limited medical cannabis legalization bill during his freshman year in the legislature, and his support for the reform is partly based on the fact that he has a “sister with severe epilepsy, and small amounts of CBD oil makes a big difference in people’s lives.”

Phelan also noted that he was a “joint author—no pun intended” of cannabis decriminalization legislation last session.

“I was able to go back home and explain it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “To me, it’s a reasonable criminal justice reform issue.”

Texans’ support for legalizing marijuana has grown significantly over the past decade, according to a poll released last month.

Sixty percent of state voters now back making cannabis legal “for any use,” the University of Texas and Texas Tribune survey found. That compares to just 42 percent who said the same back in 2010.

Leaders in both chambers of the legislature have recently indicated that they anticipate more modest proposals to be taken up and potentially approved this session, particularly as it concerns expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

Phelan said he thinks “the House will look at” reform measures this year, including bills to legalize for adult use. He said the lawmakers will likely “review those again, and some will get traction, some will not.” However, the Senate remains an obstacle for comprehensive reform.

Legislators in the state prefiled more than a dozen pieces of cannabis legislation ahead of the new session. That includes bills that would legalize recreational marijuana, allow high-THC cannabis for medical use and decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana.

That said, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has killed prior efforts to enact reform in the state, raising questions about the prospects of far-reaching changes advancing in the chamber.

Nevada Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Bill To Allow On-Site Consumption Lounges

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Nevada Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Bill To Allow On-Site Consumption Lounges

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A bill to allow on-site marijuana consumption lounges advanced through a Nevada Assembly committee on Friday. The panel separately passed a measure making it so the concentration of THC in a person’s blood cannot be singularly used to determine impairment while driving.

The social use legislation, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager (D), would create two new licensing categories for cannabis businesses in the state. One would be for “retail cannabis consumption lounges” and the other would be an “independent cannabis consumption lounge.”

Existing retailers could apply for the former license and sell products that could be consumed on-site by adults 21 and older. Independent lounges would not be permitted to sell cannabis on their own, but would need to have marijuana products delivered to consumers from another source.

That said, independent licensees could submit a request to regulators to sell cannabis that they produce or to enter into a contract with an adult-use retailer to sell their products.

The state’s Cannabis Compliance Board would also be responsible for creating regulations for on-site facilities and setting fees for license applicants. Businesses that qualify as social equity applicants would have a reduced fee.

Under the legislation, a person “who has been adversely affected by provisions of previous laws which criminalized activity relating to cannabis, including, without limitation, adverse effects on an owner, officer or board member of the applicant or on the geographic area in which the applicant will operate” is considered a social equity applicant.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 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.

Yeager proposed a large-scale amendment to the proposal before it was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee. It builds on the definition and scoring system for social equity applicants, revises public safety requirements for lounges and ensures that products purchased at lounges cannot be removed from the facility, among other changes.

The Las Vegas City Council in 2019 approved an ordinance allowing for social consumption sites within city limits.

That year, Alaska became the first state to enact regulations that provide for the on-site use option at dispensaries. Colorado followed suit with legislation approved that legalized cannabis “tasting rooms” and “marijuana hospitality establishments” where adults could freely use cannabis. Social consumption sites are also provided for in New York’s recently enacted marijuana legalization law.

In Nevada, adding new license types and giving consumers this option—especially in the tourist-centric state—could further boost marijuana and other tax revenues. And Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) has had a particular interest in ensuring that those tax dollars support public education, which he talked about during a State of the State address in January.

Sisolak has also committed to promoting equity and justice in the state’s marijuana law. Last year, for example, he pardoned more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level cannabis possession.

That action was made possible under a resolution the governor introduced that was unanimously approved by the state’s Board of Pardons Commissioners.

Under the impaired driving bill that separately cleared the committee on Friday, the per se blood test for THC would no longer be used in determining impairment.

Advocates have argued that the limit is arbitrary and there’s a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating a link between the amount of THC metabolites present in the blood and active impairment.

New Mexico Governor Sends Marijuana Bill Sponsors A ‘Save The Date’ For Expected Legalization Bill Signing

Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.

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.
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Biden Gets Yet Another Congressional Letter Blasting Marijuana-Related White House Firings

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President Joe Biden has received yet another letter from a lawmaker demanding answers about his administration’s practice of firing or otherwise punishing staffers for prior marijuana use.

Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) noted the national push to end prohibition and how the White House’s actions reveal a troubling disconnect.

“Cannabis is legal for either medical or adult use in 36 states, with numerous states pursuing efforts to further legalize for adult use,” the congresswoman wrote. “In Minnesota, our state legislature is expected to vote on measures to legalize cannabis in the coming months following years of political and community organizing by activists throughout the state.”

“Minnesotans and the American people are demanding change to our harsh and unequally applied cannabis laws,” she wrote. “I look forward to seeing your Administration reverse course on this harmful and unnecessary hurdle to hiring diverse and talented public servants.”

Craig also mentioned efforts to legalize marijuana at the federal level and commented on Biden’s prior statements on more modest reforms.

“I stand ready to work with you as we revisit our country’s drug laws, including the descheduling of cannabis as a Class 1 drug at the federal level,” she said. “You have previously expressed your commitment to decriminalizing cannabis in acknowledgement that a cannabis conviction or even the stigma of cannabis use can ruin lives and prevent people from voting, gaining employment and contributing to society.”

This is the third letter from lawmakers that Biden has been sent regarding the federal marijuana employment controversy.

A coalition of 30 members of Congress sent a letter last month that sharply criticizes the administration for terminating or punishing multiple White House staffers who disclosed their prior cannabis use. They pointed out that Vice President Kamala Harris and at least one one other Cabinet member are on record about their own marijuana use experiences.

Prior to that, Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) sent a similar message to the president condemning news of the marijuana-related firings for people who were honest about their history with cannabis on a federal form that’s required as part of the background check process.

“Simply put, in a nation where the truth is considered malleable, we need to demonstrate to our young public servants that telling the truth is an honorable trait, not one to be punished,” the congressman wrote. “I respectfully request that your administration discontinue punishment of staff for being honest about their prior cannabis use and reinstate otherwise qualified individuals to their posts.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addressed the controversy last month, saying during a press briefing that while Biden could theoretically end the policy of firing staff over prior marijuana use himself, that’s not happening as long as cannabis is federally illegal.

She later said that the president’s stance on marijuana legalization “has not changed,” meaning he’s still opposed to the comprehensive reform.

Psaki has previously attempted to minimize the fallout over the cannabis firings, with not much success, and so her office released a statement last month stipulating that nobody was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.”

Read the new letter to Biden on White House marijuana employment policy below: 

Letter to Biden Regarding C… by Marijuana Moment

New Mexico Governor Sends Marijuana Bill Sponsors A ‘Save The Date’ For Expected Legalization Bill Signing

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.
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