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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

Top Pennsylvania Official Restores Marijuana Flag After GOP Lawmakers Allegedly Got It Removed

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Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s (D) marijuana and LGBTQ flags are waving again at his Capitol office after state officials removed them Monday night, allegedly at the behest of certain GOP lawmakers who feel strongly about the activist decor.

The day after their removal, the lieutenant governor proudly announced on Twitter that he’d restored the flags—one rainbow-themed and the other displaying cannabis leaves.

“I really can’t emphasize this enough, my issue isn’t with the individuals that came to take them down. They’re kind of caught in the middle of it so it’s not them,” Fetterman told Marijuana Moment. “But the Pennsylvania GOP exerted enough pressure and made enough drama so they felt that they needed to do something and they took them down. When I realized that, I just put them back up.”

The flags have been an unusual source of controversy for some members of the legislature. In November, Republican lawmakers passed budget legislation that included a provision targeting his cannabis-themed office decor, making it so only the American flag, the Pennsylvania flag and those honoring missing soldiers could be displayed at the Capitol building.

“There’s one great way to get them down for good and we can end this,” the lieutenant governor said. And that’s by enacting legislative reform.

“It shouldn’t have to be this way. These are not controversial things. These are very fundamentally American things. It’s freedom-related. It’s individuality-related. It’s jobs. It’s revenue,” he said. “These are not controversial, but these flags are. For the party that thinks it’s A-OK to talk about how an election that was secure was rigged, they sure have a real thin skin when it comes to free speech.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of General Services confirmed to Marijuana Moment that it was tasked with removing the flags and did so “in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.” Asked whether lawmakers from the legislature’s Republican majority influenced the recent action, the representative repeated: “All I can say is the Department of General Services removed the flag in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.”

Marijuana Moment reached out to the offices of the Senate majority leader and House speaker for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.

Defying the flag order is par for the course for Fetterman, a longtime marijuana reform advocate who is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate. His enthusiastic embrace of the issue has often put him in the spotlight, and he said he’d take that advocacy to Congress if he ultimately decides to enter the race and is elected.

“I’m the only person that’s actually called out my own party for its failure to embrace it when it is appropriate,” he said, referring to his repeated criticism of the Democratic National Committee’s rejection of a pro-legalization platform. “There has never been—or would ever be—a more committed advocate to ending this awful superstition over a plant for the United States.”

On his campaign website, the lieutenant governor touts his role in leading a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on the policy change. He noted that, following his efforts, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) “announced his support for legalization for the first time.”

It remains to be seen when legalization will happen in Pennsylvania, however. Despite Fetterman and Wolf’s support for legalization and the pressure they’re applying on lawmakers, convincing Republican legislative leaders to go along with the plan remains a challenge.

Fetterman previously told Marijuana Moment that pursuing reform through the governor’s budget request is a possibility. But in the meantime the administration is exploring the constitutionality of issuing “wholesale pardons for certain marijuana convictions and charges.”

Since adopting a pro-legalization position in 2019, Wolf has repeatedly called on the legislature to enact the policy change. He’s stressed that stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.

In September, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.

Fetterman previously said that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—where voters approved a legalization referendum in November—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously reform its cannabis laws.

He also hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.

Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.

A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Top New York Official Responds To Marijuana Advocates’ Criticism Of Governor’s Legalization Plan

Photo courtesy of Twitter/John Fetterman.

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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Hawaii Could Legalize Psychedelic Mushroom Therapy Under New Senate Bill

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Hawaii could legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms for therapy under a newly filed bill in the state legislature.

The measure, if approved, would direct the state Department of Health to “establish designated treatment centers for the therapeutic administration of psilocybin and psilocyn,” two psychoactive substances produced by certain fungi.

It would also remove the two compounds from the state’s list of Schedule I controlled substances and create a seven-person psilocybin review panel to assess the impacts of the policy change.

Few other specifics are provided in the bill, SB 738, introduced in the state Senate on Friday. It doesn’t specify who would qualify for the therapy, for example, or how precisely the drugs—which remain federally illegal—would be administered. The legislation simply says the Department of Health “shall adopt rules” in accordance with state law.

The new legislation comes less than a year after Hawaii lawmakers introduced bills to begin studying the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms with the goal of eventually legalizing them, though those measures did not advance.

Entheogens—including other substances like ayahuasca and ibogaine—have emerged as a promising treatment for severe depression, anxiety and other conditions, although research remains ongoing.

In November, voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure to legalize psilocybin therapy that the state is now in the process of implementing.

The new Hawaii bill was introduced by Sens. Stanley Chang, Laura Clint Acasio, Les Ihara Jr. and Maile Shimabukuro, all Democrats. It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, according to the state legislature’s website.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 400 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.

The Hawaii proposal is one of a growing number of broader reform bills to have been introduced across the country this year as the debate on drug policy moves beyond marijuana. A measure introduced in New York earlier this month would remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of any controlled substance, instead imposing a $50 fine. Similar measures are expected to be introduced in California and Washington State this year.

A Florida lawmaker recently announced plans to introduce legislation to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes in the state.

Lawmakers in New Jersey last month sent a bill to Gov. Phil Murphy (D) that would reduce criminal charges for the possession of psilocybin, but so far Murphy hasn’t signed the measure.

Voters, meanwhile, have been broadly supportive of drug reform measures in recent years. In addition to the psilocybin. measure, Oregon voters in November also approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs. Washington, D.C. voters overwhelmingly enacted a proposal to decriminalize the possession of psychedelics.

Despite the growing discussion of drug reform at statehouses across the country, some high-profile advocates are setting their sights on the 2022 election. Dr. Bronner’s CEO David Bronner, a key financial backer of successful reform efforts in Oregon, told Marijuana Moment last month that he’s expecting both Washington state and Colorado voters will see decriminalization or psilocybin therapy on their 2022 ballots.

Meanwhile, a new advocacy group is pushing Congress to allocate $100 million to support research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

New Psychedelics Reform Group Sets Sights On Congress As Movement Builds

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.
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Minnesota Governor Urges Lawmakers To Pursue Marijuana Legalization Amid Budget Talks

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The governor of Minnesota on Tuesday implored the legislature to look into legalizing marijuana as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice.

During a briefing focused on his budget proposal for the 2022-23 biennium, Gov. Tim Walz (D) was asked whether he is open to allowing sports betting in the state to generate tax revenue. He replied he wasn’t closing the door on that proposal, but said he is more interested in seeing lawmakers “take a look at recreational cannabis.”

Not only would tax revenue from adult-use marijuana “dwarf” those collected through sports betting, he said, but legalization would also help address “the equity issue and, quite honestly, the racial impact of our cannabis laws.”

Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization below: 

“I will say this, I will certainly leave open that possibility. Our neighboring states have done both of those things,” Walz said of legalizing sports gambling and cannabis. “I obviously recognize that that’s not a 100 percent slam dunk for people, and they realize that there’s cost associated with both. But my message would be is, I don’t think this is the time for me to say I’m shutting the door on anything.”

Walz did not include a request to legalize through his budget, however, as governors in some other states have.

The Minnesota governor did say in 2019, however, that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.

Earlier this month, the House majority leader said he would again introduce a bill to legalize marijuana in the new session. And if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the reform, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.

Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said this month that “Senate Republicans remain the biggest obstacle to progress on this issue.”

“Minnesota’s current cannabis laws are doing more harm than good,” she told The Center Square. “By creating a regulatory framework we can address the harms caused by cannabis and establish a more sensible set of laws to improve our health care and criminal justice systems and ensure better outcomes for communities,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), for his part, said that while he would be “open to expanding medical use or hearing criminal justice reforms,” he doesn’t “believe fully legalized marijuana is right for the state.”

“Other states that have legalized marijuana are having issues with public safety,” he argued, “and we are concerned that we haven’t fully seen how this works with employment issues, education outcomes and mental health.”

Last month, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.

Another factor that might add pressure on lawmakers to enact the reform is the November vote in neighboring South Dakota to legalize adult-use cannabis.

Also next door, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is pushing lawmakers to enact marijuana reform and recently said that he is considering putting legalization in his upcoming budget request.

New Mexico Governor Pushes For Marijuana Legalization In State Of The State Address

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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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