Democrats face tough climb on winning Senate approval of legal marijuana

CORRECTION: Morgan Fox is the policy director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. An earlier version of this story included an incorrect identification. This story has been updated to accurately reflect which senators are involved in the effort to pass the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is facing significant obstacles in his legislative push to legalize marijuana, with resistance from Republicans and members of his own party threatening chances of passage in the upper chamber.

Schumer has said that his aim is to bring a comprehensive marijuana reform bill forward later this month, weeks after the House passed a bill that would remove marijuana from the federal controlled substances list.

“We hope to do that towards the end of April,” Schumer said in remarks last week, noting discussions with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who are involved in the push. He also added that he has been reaching out to “a few Republicans to see what they want.”

Staunch Republican opposition to legislation legalizing marijuana is one of the biggest hurdles Schumer faces in passing a measure through the evenly split Senate, where Democrats would need the backing of all of their members and at least 10 Republicans to make the bill law.

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, cast doubt on its chances. “I would not think it would pass the Senate right now,” he said.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), whose state has legalized recreational marijuana in recent years, also said he doesn’t “support legalization,” citing “serious drug problems in Montana.”

Schumer also faces a tall task in unifing Democrats on a path forward to legalization, as a few in his party have continued to express reservations about recreational marijuana.  

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key centrist, told The Hill he is “very much supportive of medical marijuana,” though he still has concerns “about legalizing recreational marijuana.”

Pressed for her thoughts on the House’s marijuana legalization bill, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) also voiced concerns.

“I have concerns about recreational marijuana, and given the substance abuse crisis we have in this country, and we have an issue in New Hampshire and the lack of comprehensive data on how people are affected,” she said.

The comments underscore the heavy lift on the bill.

The reality presents a stark contrast from the Democratic-led House, where members this month voted 220-204, largely along party lines, to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would nix marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances, expunge certain marijuana-related convictions and impose a tax on marijuana sales to help communities disproportionately impacted by the nation’s war on drugs.

The uncertainty also comes as public support for legalization steadily grows. More than two-thirds of Americans want to legalize recreational weed, according to a November Gallup poll, the highest figure on record. The survey found that 83 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents and 50 percent of Republicans back legalization.  

The House had previously passed the MORE Act in December 2020, marking the first vote by a congressional chamber to legalize marijuana federally. It was not taken up by the Senate, which had at the time been led by Republicans.

Senate Democrats are expected to bring forward their own measure in the weeks ahead, after previously releasing a draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) last year.

Senate Democrats released the draft plan in July, while also asking for feedback from the public and stakeholders as well as government and state officials. Backers have said the plan seeks to build upon the text seen in the MORE Act, with proposals aimed at addressing items like drugged driving and safety standards, among other measures.

Wyden told The Hill on Thursday that he and senators hope to take swift action on the bill shortly after its introduction.

“It’s going to get referred to the Finance Committee, I believe, and I want to work with both sides to have hearings as quickly as possible,” said Wyden, who chairs the Senate panel.

The momentous effort would be a welcome change of pace for advocates.

“The issue has been talked about quite a bit more in the House than it has in the Senate, which so far has not really had a substantive hearing on cannabis policy generally,” said Morgan Fox, policy director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Fox said the House has led the charge in passing both incremental and comprehensive bills, pointing to passage of items like marijuana and banking legislation, the MORE Act and a recent medical marijuana research bill that was approved this week.

“In this Congress, we really haven’t been able to do that in the Senate, because the CAOA hasn’t been introduced yet. It’s kind of difficult to really rally conversations and hearings around a bill that doesn’t technically exist,” he said.

Cannabis executives, wary that the bill won’t pass the Senate, are pushing Senate Democrats to prioritize bills that have bipartisan support, like the SAFE Banking Act, which would enable operating cannabis firms to use banking services. 

The bill’s advocates say that under current law, in which financial institutions could be penalized for working with cannabis businesses, dispensaries are forced to hold large sums of cash, making them prime targets for robberies. 

Schumer has previously blocked the legislation, which has passed the House several times and has nine Republican co-sponsors in the Senate, over concerns that its passage would make it harder for lawmakers to pass comprehensive marijuana reform. 

The fast-growing cannabis industry, which employs more than 400,000 U.S. workers, has suggested that lawmakers could pass the banking bill alongside other bipartisan bills to expunge weed convictions. 

“We expect congressional leadership to do everything in their power to advance descheduling, but we also realize that the clock is ticking on this session of Congress and it’s critically important that we see some reforms happen that are within reach,” said Steve Hawkins, CEO of the U.S. Cannabis Council, an industry group. 

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Wednesday that her department is “supportive” of the SAFE Banking Act and lamented that Congress has not updated federal law to accommodate states that have legalized weed.   

“It’s an important issue, and it’s an extremely frustrating one that we haven’t been able to resolve it,” Yellen told Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), the bill’s lead sponsor, during a House hearing. 

The rare show of support from the Biden administration, which has largely remained silent on cannabis issues and even dismissed staffers over their previous marijuana use, could give the banking bill a timely boost.

This week, Democratic leaders tapped lawmakers to serve on a conference committee to craft the final China competitiveness bill. The House-passed bill included the SAFE Banking Act, while the Senate version did not.

“We’re optimistic that SAFE will get across the finish line,” Hawkins said, noting that he’s hopeful it will be included in the China competitiveness bill that goes to President Biden’s desk.

Tags Chuck Schumer Cory Booker Jeanne Shaheen Joe Manchin marijuana legalization Ron Wyden Roy Blunt Steve Daines

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