Deep doubts on legal marijuana remain in GOP

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) leaves the House Chamber following the final vote of the week regarding the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act on Friday, March 18, 2022.
Greg Nash

The vast majority of House Republicans on Friday are expected to vote against a bill ending the federal prohibition on marijuana, underscoring the deep reservations that remain in the GOP over its use and allowing it to become widely available even as support for legalization grows.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are recommending their colleagues vote “no,” warning that passage of the bill would lead to widespread use of the drug. They also say it ignores the established science about marijuana’s harmful effects.

GOP lawmakers are also perturbed that Republican amendments for more restriction were not considered.

“Our country is already suffering from many Biden-inflicted crises. Now Democrats are making it their priority to expand accessibility of addictive, behavior-altering, recreational drugs,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), adding that programs in the bill would “produce a negative impact for our children and our communities.”

The bill, dubbed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, would remove cannabis from the list of banned federal substances, expunge certain past offenses associated with cannabis, impose a 5 percent federal tax on cannabis that eventually increases to 8 percent, and fund programs aimed at helping communities affected by the war on drugs. 

The legislation is not expected to pass the Senate, where it would need support from at least 10 Republicans, though Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is helping to shape a different cannabis legalization bill.

Polls find that large majorities of Americans think that marijuana should be legal in some form.

A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that just 8 percent of Americans think marijuana should not be legal in any form, 31 percent said it should be legal for medical use only, and 60 percent said that it should be legal for medical and recreational use. Among those who said they were Republicans or leaned Republican, 47 percent supported legal medical and recreational marijuana while 40 percent said it should be legal for medical use only.

As public opinion has warmed toward cannabis legalization, so have Republican politicians. Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) joined the board of a cannabis investment company after he left the House.

When the MORE Act previously passed the House in 2020, five Republicans joined Democrats to support it. One of those five, Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), said he would “probably” vote in favor of the legislation again.

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) said that he has had a personal evolution in coming to support legalization for medicinal cannabis, but not for recreational use.

Even those Republicans who support fully allowing states to decide their own policies for whether cannabis should be prohibited or legal for either medical or recreational use found issue with the MORE Act.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who last year introduced an alternative bill to end federal cannabis prohibition called the States Reform Act, told The Hill that she could not support the MORE Act. Federal cannabis reform has to be bipartisan and bicameral in order to be signed into law, she said, and Democrats did not allow votes on her amendments. One of those would have implemented an age limit of 21 and older for recreational use.  

“I have incentives for states not to sell to kids or market or advertise to kids,” Mace said. “My tax is a lot lower at 3 percent. Theirs is eight after three years, and we all know that you’re going to guarantee illicit markets if you make taxes too high.”

Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus who supports ending the federal prohibition on cannabis, will not support the MORE Act. In a letter to GOP colleagues reported by Marijuana Moment, Joye said that the bill does not establish a “responsible regulatory framework upon ending federal prohibition.”

Other Republicans hammered that point, too.

Rep. Tom Tiffany (Wis.) introduced proposed amendments to put a label on cannabis products warning of harmful effects for pregnant women and a developing fetus, and to prohibit fruity flavor additives to cannabis products, similar to nicotine vape products.

“If this standard is good enough for Juul and Puff Bar, shouldn’t it also apply to Cheech and Chong?” Tiffany said on the House floor.

But beyond stoking frustrations on policy approaches from Republicans who support federal cannabis reform in some way, the MORE Act vote showed that a number of Republicans are resistant to recreational legalization. 

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a physician, called recreational legalization a “bad idea,” saying that the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse has testified that “from a health perspective, you shouldn’t legalize recreational marijuana.”

Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said that there is a lot of opposition to cannabis legalization among lawmakers behind closed doors.

“​​There’s a huge number of [marijuana legalization] lobbyists, and they don’t have many successes,” Sabet said, noting that the MORE Act is expected to stall in the Senate.

Mace said that those who are still adamantly opposed to ending federal prohibition and allowing states to make their own policies don’t have all the information and public opinion data that she does. “The only place it really feels controversial is in D.C. because people are afraid,” she said.

“This genie’s not going back in the bottle,” Mace said, saying that only two states have had no reform at all on cannabis. “So we might as well put in incentives and provisions that one, protect kids, which is what my bill does; protects our military; and protects the rights of states to implement cannabis reforms as they see fit.”

Tags Andy Harris Bob Gibbs Bob Good Bob Good Brian Mast Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer House GOP John Boehner John Boehner Legalization Marijuana marijuana legalization Nancy Mace Nancy Mace
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