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What the shift in Senate control means for marijuana policy reform

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As Congress comes to order and the process of doing the people’s work begins, the change in Senate leadership means the increased potential for a number of policy areas to be addressed, including marijuana policy reform. 

With Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) now the first head of the upper chamber ever to publicly support ending federal marijuana prohibition, he’s made several commitments on multiple occasions to advance legislation to repeal the federal criminalization of cannabis. Further, he has previously introduced his own stand-alone legislation, the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which strikes cannabis from the list of banned controlled substances and laid the groundwork for the creation of the House-passed The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (MORE)

But Schumer is not alone in his support for repealing federal cannabis prohibition. In fact, multiple Democratic Senate lawmakers previously introduced legislation to remove the marijuana plant from the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. These efforts include Sens. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) The Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act, Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) The Marijuana Justice Act, Tina Smith’s (D-Minn.) The Substance Regulation and Safety Act and Bernie Sanders’ The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act.

With the majority-making Georgia Senators both favoring the end of marijuana criminalization, it only increases the political pressure for action in this Congress. 

Compare this to the reality of the 116th Congress, when similar efforts were dead on arrival under then-Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). In fact, McConnell never even permitted these marijuana prohibitions to be debated in committee, much less provided a pathway for a vote. This will certainly not be the case in the new Senate, with key cannabis reform champions occupying critical positions on key committees: 

The Judiciary Committee

Booker, a longtime reform champion of legalizing marijuana, will undoubtedly use his role on the Senate Judiciary Committee to ensure that the issue of reform is front and center at every opportunity. He is unquestionably the most effective messenger who connects the harm of criminal records associated for minor infractions to the larger systemic issues within the criminalization system. From the explicitly racist roots of marijuana prohibition to the racially disproportionate ways that law enforcement continues to harass minority communities while using marijuana as a pretext, Booker is determined to halt the ongoing damage and provide justice to those who have suffered. 

Expect to see questions in hearings, amendments offered or inserted into germane bills and comprehensive legislation in the near future. 

The Appropriations Committee

In the 116th Congress, a team of bipartisan lawmakers teamed up to successfully pass the Blumenauer-McClintock-Norton-Lee Amendment, which would restrict the Department of Justice (DOJ) from using taxpayer dollars to enforce federal prohibition in states that have reformed their laws. Unfortunately, the provision was stripped out when the bills went to the conference committee. 

Other important provisions were additionally added by the House only to be removed from the eventual bill, including revising federal employment drug testing, respecting Washington, D.C.’s right to legalize, demanding protections for scientific research and education and protecting tribal sovereignty when it comes to marijuana regulations, among others. 

With the incoming Senate Appropriations Chair. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who represents a state where marijuana is legal, it is likely that cannabis reforms will be able to be considered in both chambers and conference committees. 

The Finance Committee

While most could reasonably assume that legislation to end marijuana prohibition would be assigned to the Judiciary Committee — because any comprehensive cannabis package would contain tax provisions — it is actually referred to the Finance Committee instead. This is what happened with the MORE Act when it was previously introduced by then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was in the last session of Congress. 

With the change in leadership, the Senate Finance Committee will be chaired by Wyden, who has been a tenacious proponent of legalization. He recently was the recipient of the NORML Rufus King Sr. award for Outstanding Public Servant after successfully negotiating the descheduling of marijuana with .3 percent THC or less (hemp). 

With the change in leadership, the Senate Finance Committee will be chaired by Wyden, who has been a tenacious proponent of legalization. He recently was the recipient of the NORML Rufus King Sr. award for Outstanding Public Servant after successfully negotiating the descheduling of marijuana with .3 percent THC or less (hemp). 

Given that Wyden has previously introduced his own legislation in the past pertaining to a post-prohibition regulatory structure and already knows much of the underlying policy and it is likely that the issue will receive consideration in Committee this Congress. 

In short, for the first time ever, leaders of both chambers of Congress are on record expressing their willingness to advance marijuana policy reform. But with so many issues facing the Congress and many complex procedural factors facing the chambers, it would be all too easy for these efforts to be lost in the haze. It is imperative that supporters of ending criminalization work together to navigate the now-open window to advance these critical, popular, and rational reforms.

Justin Strekal is the political director for NORML, where he serves as an advocate to end the federal criminalization of marijuana and to reform our nation’s laws to no longer unduly discriminate against its consumers in various aspects of their lives.

Tags Bernie Sanders Chuck Schumer Cory Booker legal marijuana legalization of marijuana marijuana policy marijuana reform Mitch McConnell MORE Act Patrick Leahy Ron Wyden Tina Smith

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