What the shift in Senate control means for marijuana policy reform

What the shift in Senate control means for marijuana policy reform
© Getty Images

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 SchumerChuck Schumer84 mayors call for immigration to be included in reconciliation Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE (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 WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan MORE’s (D-Ore.) The Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act, Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Congress can make progress on fighting emissions with Zero Food Waste Act MORE’s (D-N.J.) The Marijuana Justice Act, Tina SmithTina Flint SmithFauci: Paul doesn't know what he's talking about Clean electricity standard should be a no brainer amid extreme climate impacts Overnight Energy: Democrats reach budget deal including climate priorities | Europe planning to cut emissions 55 percent by 2030 | Army Corps nominee pledges not to politicize DAPL environmental review MORE’s (D-Minn.) The Substance Regulation and Safety Act and Bernie SandersBernie SandersWomen's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan MORE’ The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing MORE (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. 

ADVERTISEMENT

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 LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyOvernight Defense: Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill | House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors | US increases airstrikes to help Afghan forces fight Taliban On The Money: Schumer, Warren call on Biden to extend student loan pause | IMF estimates 6 percent global growth this year Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill MORE (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 HarrisKamala HarrisWant to improve vaccine rates? Ask for this endorsement Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Will Pence primary Trump — and win? MORE (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.