Democratic Control of Congress Has High Implications for Federal Cannabis Reform
With Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, there is new hope that America can finally bid farewell to the war against weed.
Published on January 7, 2021

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Thanks to Georgia, Democrats have flipped the US Senate for the first time in more than a decade. When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, the Democrats will take control of both the executive and the legislative branches of the federal government. This transition bodes well for many liberal policies, including healthcare, pandemic response, education debt relief – and cannabis reform. 

During the last term of the Obama administration, the Republican-controlled Congress shut down pretty much any cannabis bill that came their way. Things started to change in 2018, when the Democrats took control of the House and started advancing serious cannabis reform legislation. Just last month, the House approved bills that would end the federal prohibition of marijuana and expand clinical cannabis research opportunities.

These bills had no chance of passing a GOP-dominated Senate, though. In his stint as Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) shut down every cannabis bill that crossed his desk (with the notable exception of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp). But now that the gavel is being passed to Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a proponent of weed reform, that is all likely to change.

“Unfortunately, under the GOP Senate leadership, the MORE Act, the SAFE Banking Act, and many other important reform bills were dead on arrival,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal in a statement. “By contrast, Democratic leaders in the Upper Chamber — including Senators Schumer, Wyden, Booker, Merkley, Smith, Sanders, and others — have already pledged publicly to debate and advance legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition via descheduling.”

“Senator Schumer’s ascension to Majority Leader will mark the first time in US history that the upper chamber is led by a Senator who is openly calling for cannabis legalization,” Strekal added.

Georgia's run-off election also installed two more proponents of cannabis reform into office. Senators-elect Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have both gone on record condemning federal marijuana prohibition. In one of his sermons, Rev. Warnock argued that “it’s not enough to decriminalize marijuana. Somebody’s gotta open up the jails and let our children go.” The reverend was referring to the thousands of Americans locked up for non-violent cannabis crimes, although this quote was twisted and used against him by his Republican opponent. 

This summer, Ossoff told CNBC that he “won’t just push for decriminalization,” but will instead “push for nationwide legalization of cannabis. The prohibition of this substance is irrational. It’s hugely expensive. It has a terrible human toll... I’ll fight for outright cannabis legalization, an end to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses, and expungement of records for nonviolent cannabis offenses.”

Democratic senators will have the freedom to propose their own cannabis legislation, but they will also have the chance to debate reform bills recently passed by the House. The most comprehensive of these, the MORE Act, would completely end the federal prohibition of cannabis and provide restorative justice to former pot offenders. The House also recently approved the Medical Marijuana Research Act, a bill that would ease researchers' access to high-quality cannabis.

Senators would also be free to debate the SAFE Banking Act, a bill that would legally allow banks and financial institutions to open accounts for or offer loans to state-legal weed businesses. This summer, the House successfully added the language from this bill to a second COVID relief package, but this bill was shut down by Senate Republicans. Now, under Schumer's watch, bills like these are likely to receive the attention that they deserve. 

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Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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