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 SessionsHillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — Lawmaker sees political payback in fight over 'deepfakes' measure | Tech giants to testify at hearing on 'censorship' claims | Google pulls the plug on AI council Lawmaker alleges political payback in failed 'deepfakes' measure As Russia collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges 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 secretary of state bans employees from traveling to Alabama after abortion law Colorado governor marks day for teen who died in school shooting Montana Gov. Bullock enters presidential race 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 BlumenauerTop House Dem calls to launch impeachment inquiry if McGahn skips testimony Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order to protect US networks from Chinese tech | Huawei downplays order | Trump declines to join effort against online extremism | Facebook restricts livestreaming | FCC proposes new tool against robocalls Hoyer defends Tlaib Holocaust remarks after criticism from GOP 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 JoyceThe STATES Act will expose flawed marijuana legacy Bipartisan bill to protect legal cannabis businesses introduced EPA chief doubles down on Trump's commitment to fully fund Great Lakes program MORE (R-Ohio) are working with Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate Republicans running away from Alabama abortion law Frustrated GOP senators want answers from Trump on Iran Graham: Trump officials not adequately briefing on Iran threat MORE (R-Colo.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Memo: Trump faces steep climb to reelection Feehery: A whole new season of 'Game of Thrones' Overnight Energy: Warren wants Dems to hold climate-focused debate | Klobuchar joins candidates rejecting fossil fuel money | 2020 contender Bennet offers climate plan 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — McConnell, Kaine offer bill to raise tobacco buying age to 21 | Measles outbreak spreads to 24 states | Pro-ObamaCare group launches ad blitz to protect Dems 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.”