Supporters of legalizing marijuana for recreational use believe a bevy of ballot measures up for a vote this year could give them the momentum necessary to make serious legislative gains in the next Congress.
That would reverse a century of tough-on-pot policy coming out of Congress, reflected most recently in efforts by some members of Congress to squash the District of Columbia’s own liberalized marijuana law.
“The people are leading on this more than the Congress. I think Congress is just going to end up reflecting the will of the voters,” said Rep. Denny HeckDennis (Denny) Lynn HeckExclusive: Guccifer 2.0 hacked memos expand on Pennsylvania House races Heck enjoys second political wind Incoming lawmaker feeling a bit overwhelmed MORE (D-Wash.).
Voters in five states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — will decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use this November. If those measures pass, those states would join Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia, where recreational pot is already legal.
If all five measures pass, nearly a quarter of Congress — 100 members — would represent states in which marijuana is legal.
If those measures are approved, marijuana activists are hopeful it will spark progress on three pieces of legislation.
One is a measure sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who offered an amendment to last year’s Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Act that would prevent the Department of Justice from suing states that legalize marijuana for recreational use. In June 2015, McClintock’s rider failed by a narrow 206 to 222 margin.
Of the 45 Republicans who voted for the bill, six came from the four states that had already legalized marijuana. Marijuana advocates hope they can peel off votes from the 18 Republicans and two Democrats who represent the five states where pot initiatives will be on the ballot this year who voted against the bill last year. Those members, the logic goes, won’t want the Justice Department suing their states.
“We know that all politics is local, and that members of Congress are primarily concerned with what’s going on” in their districts, said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.
A second priority is a measure sponsored by Heck and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), which would specifically allow banks to offer accounts to legal marijuana businesses without risking sanctions from federal banking regulators.
Some banks and credit unions do accept accounts from marijuana businesses, based on guidance issued by the Justice Department. But major financial institutions in the risk-averse industry are still hesitant to open accounts to those businesses.
“This isn’t going to reach full legitimacy among financial institutions on a universal scale until federal law changes, or [marijuana is] de-scheduled,” Heck said. “I think that is a long-term inevitability, but that will take a lot of incremental steps.”
The American Banking Association, which represents the largest banks in the country, has not taken a position on marijuana businesses.
Finally, proponents believe they will be able to advance legislation to allow doctors in VA hospitals to discuss medical marijuana treatment options with their patients in states where those treatments are legal. An amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations measure passed both the House and Senate this year, though it was stripped out in conference committee.
All three measures enjoy bipartisan support. Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerProtecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program MORE (R-Colo.) has worked with Democrats to expand access to bank accounts. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) was a prime driver of allowing VA doctors to discuss medical marijuana. Forty-four Republicans joined McClintock in voting to block the Justice Department’s interference with state laws. Proponents say they have the votes, though House and Senate leadership has blocked measures from the floor.
“The votes are there in Congress. What we’ve got is leadership constipation. It’s blocking. But the votes are there. We continually manifest that whenever we have a chance to do it,” Heck said. Asked whether his colleagues were evolving in their thinking on marijuana, he added: “It’s been incremental. They’re politicians. ‘There goes the parade, so I must go.’”
Backers of marijuana liberalization are likely to get new allies next year, as Democrats are expected to pick up seats in Congress. And some Republicans may rethink their opposition if their states vote to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
“There will be more Republican allies come January,” Heck predicted.
The legislative push comes as the marijuana industry presents itself in a new light as it seeks to dispel the political stigma surrounding liberalization of pot laws. Groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and the National Cannabis Industry Association have spent more than $200,000 each on lobbying activities in the last few years, a sign even opponents of legalization see as evidence of the industry’s evolution.
“The industry is very well organized on Capitol Hill,” said Kevin Sabet, an opponent of marijuana legalization and the director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. “They’ve gotten rid of the ponytails and the hemp t-shirts, and they’ve got Ivy League degrees.”
Though the marijuana industry sees an opportunity to build momentum at the federal level, some legalization proponents worry about the consequences of defeats. The last time a marijuana legalization measure was on the ballot, in Ohio in 2015, voters rejected it by a wide margin.
Supporters of legalization were harshly critical of that measure, which many viewed as fatally flawed)
“If we do see a significant number of losses, or a big loss in an important state like California, that could seriously interrupt our momentum,” said Tom Angell, founder of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority.