Marijuana industry hunts for votes after helping to oust top opponent

The marijuana industry, which is growing quickly in a handful of states where recreational use is legal, is turning its attention to Congress, plotting an aggressive legislative agenda it hopes will advance after years of stagnation.

Supporters of legalization hope the 116th Congress will move a handful of measures aimed at normalizing the marijuana industry. They will have help from several members of Congress — including several top Republicans — who want the federal government to stay out of what they see as a state’s rights issue.

“This is a place that Republicans and Democrats alike can agree that it shouldn’t be the place of the federal government to interfere,” said Aaron Smith, who heads the National Cannabis Industry Association.

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Lobbyists for marijuana reform groups say they hope to pass new measures aimed at allowing cannabis businesses to access the federal banking system, giving those businesses access to tax breaks for business expenses that other industries take, and aligning federal policy with state policy in places where voters have already opted for legalization.

Though many of those measures had widespread support from both parties, they had run into a wall in recent years: House Rules Committee Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsTexas kicks off critical battle for House control The Hill's review of John Solomon's columns on Ukraine Tenth Congressional Black Caucus member backs Biden MORE (R-Texas).

Sessions blocked more than three dozen marijuana-related amendments from advancing to the House floor.

“The Rules Committee is a place that can stop things. So it stopped all of the efforts that I did and other members did to offer floor amendments that likely would have passed with Republican and Democratic support,” said Rep. Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisColorado, Pennsylvania governors urge people to wear masks in public The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Senate overcomes hurdles, passes massive coronavirus bill Death penalty abolished in Colorado MORE (D-Colo.), now his state’s governor-elect, who introduced several amendments that would have benefited the cannabis industry. “Largely because of [Sessions’s] position with regard to marijuana, the committee didn’t allow Congress to vote on those.”

Before November’s midterm elections, Tom Rodgers, the lobbyist who blew the whistle on Jack Abramoff, organized the marijuana industry’s first real foray into federal electoral politics. Rodgers cobbled together $125,000 in contributions from three companies — Surterra, TGS Management and PalliaTech — to the House Majority PAC, part of the $2.5 million the group spent against Sessions.

Sessions lost to Rep.-elect Colin Allred (D) in November.

Legalization backers are more confident now that Sessions will be replaced atop the Rules Committee by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). McGovern, whose state voted to legalize marijuana in 2016, has said he would allow marijuana-related amendments to the House floor next year.

“Mr. McGovern has taken great pains to stress that he supports open rules,” said Tom Angell, a pro-legalization activist who publishes the Marijuana Moment newsletter. “He is very clearly on record saying marijuana amendments are fine.”

In the days after November’s elections, in which Democrats reclaimed control of the House, longtime legalization backer Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerSenators urge Congress to include election funds in coronavirus stimulus Vote at home saves our democracy and saves lives House committee advances medical marijuana bills for veterans MORE (D-Ore.) sent a memo to House Democratic leaders outlining what he believed the House could achieve this year. Blumenauer called for hearings on descheduling marijuana as an illegal drug, increased federal research and addressing access to financial services.

“This movement is cresting,” Blumenauer wrote. “Now is our moment.”

Legalization opponents say they do not believe marijuana issues will be a high priority for a Democratic-controlled House that has just reclaimed the majority. 

“Most Democrats would rather ignore it,” said Kevin Sabet, who heads the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “Some of this stuff is more likely than it has been, but it’s far from a done deal.”

Blumenauer and Rep. David JoyceDavid Patrick JoyceBoeing suspends Washington production, GE Aviation lays off thousands Mnuchin details IRS challenges with cash-only marijuana businesses Democrat: Lawmakers need to approach opioid crisis as 'a chronic situation' MORE (R-Ohio) are working with Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerGOP senator calls for investigation into 'mismanagement' of strategic ventilators Romney says he tested negative for coronavirus, will remain in quarantine Senate GOP super PAC books more than million in fall ads MORE (R-Colo.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats seize on Trump's firing of intelligence community watchdog Biden says his administration could help grow 'bench' for Democrats Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill MORE (D-Mass.), the point people in the upper chamber. Gardner and Warren have been collecting support for the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, a measure that would align state and federal marijuana policies.

While the House looks like more favorable terrain for the cannabis industry, the picture in the Senate is far more complicated. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor Progressive group knocks McConnell for talking judicial picks during coronavirus Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill MORE (R-Ky.) ushered a provision supporting hemp production into this year’s farm bill, but even marijuana backers know he will be a tougher sell on other cannabis legislation.

“We know that with Leader McConnell having just passed hemp legislation we will need to be methodically strategic in order to address his cannabis concerns,” Rodgers said.

“McConnell did what he did on hemp, and he’s ready to move on from marijuana. Check the box for his constituency in Kentucky,” Sabet said.

A McConnell spokesman did not return a request for comment.

Still, getting votes in the House is a step for the legalization industry, where advocates take a decidedly long view. Last year, the Joint Committee on Taxation provided the first estimate of revenue legal marijuana could generate at the federal level, at Gardner’s request — a sign that the panel takes the industry seriously enough to consider its economic implications.

The committee’s economists expected sales of up to $130 billion over the next 10 years, in just the eight states that had legalized recreational marijuana at that point.

There are other signs that marijuana backers are taking Capitol Hill more seriously: Twenty-two groups have reported hiring a total of 63 lobbyists to work on the STATES Act, including credit unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, the state of Colorado and the city of San Francisco. In 2017 and 2018, the industry spent more than $3.2 million lobbying Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Over the years, the industry has become more and more engaged in campaigns, fundraising and politics,” Smith said. “Anybody who watched the midterm elections sees that politically the writing is on the wall.”