Pot for All: How Congress Is Trying to Make Weed Legal
Over the past decade, marijuana legalization has happened at break-neck speed at the state and local level. And yet, pot-related reforms have moved glacially at the federal level, especially since prohibitionist Jeff Sessions was confirmed as attorney general. But his staunch opposition and attempt to roll back Obama-era protections for local marijuana businesses has actually attracted new support to a flurry of marijuana related bills that have been picking up support in this Congress.
There are more than 40 cannabis-related bills floating around the House of Representatives alone in this Congress, along with countless others in the Senate. That’s a hard map to navigate, so below is Rolling Stone’s guide to the kinds of marijuana bills that have the most support from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer turned heads last month when he endorsed marijuana decriminalization, but he was slow to get to the party. Vermont’s Bernie Sanders was there before him, along with most every Democratic senator floated as a potential 2020 presidential contender, including Sens. Cory Booker (NJ), Kamala Harris (CA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY). Still, the statement from Schumer – who has long vocally opposed recreational marijuana – was witnessed as a dramatic move and is expected to trickle down the ballot to people running for Congress across the nation.
“This is something that is long overdue, and I would hope to see it happen,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Rolling Stone when asked about his newfound support for decriminalization at a recent Capitol Hill press conference. While numerous decriminalization bills already exist, Schumer’s office says he plans to introduce his own legislation on it, which they said would come on 4/20 and now they say will come at an unknown date.
But Schumer is in the minority party, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who currently controls floor time, isn’t budging on marijuana, even as he’s continuing his years-long push to legalize industrial hemp cultivation in the U.S.
“I do not have any plans to endorse legalization of marijuana,” McConnell responded to a question from Rolling Stone at the Capitol. “It may be good to point out again that these are two entirely separate plants. I hope everybody now understands that.”
When McConnell dubbed marijuana – which, unlike hemp, contains enough THC to get you high – hemp’s “illicit cousin,” the press corps broke out in laughter. But Schumer wasn’t laughing when he heard McConnell wouldn’t be joining his new effort to decriminalize marijuana after he endorsed McConnell’s hemp bill. “Aw, come on Mitch,” Schumer told reporters.
Let the States Decide
In the coming weeks, a bipartisan group of senators plans to drop a bill that will give individual states the right to override the federal prohibition on marijuana, which they say simply codifies what President Trump has allegedly told Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) in private conversations – that the president’s fine allowing each individual state to decide their own marijuana laws, which Gardner says is simple federalism.
“The president has said he would support a federalist approach to marijuana, and this embodies that approach,” Gardner tells Rolling Stone of his bill. He says he’s still working out the final details of it with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). She’s become more emboldened on the issue since AG Sessions rescinded the so-called Cole Memo that directed federal prosecutors to not prioritize marijuana enforcement in states that legalized weed.
But some of Trump’s biggest fans are dubious of what other lawmakers report the commander-in-chief has said in private.
“I’d be very surprised if the president, given his family history and attitude towards addictive substances, would be overly willing to expand the legalization of a drug,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) tells Rolling Stone.
Lawmakers are questioning its chances under this administration, especially because the attorney general has asked lawmakers to unwind the current congressional constraints that keep him from expending money on enforcing the federal marijuana ban in states that have legalized marijuana.
Make the Focus Medical Testing
Potentially the best chance marijuana legislation has of passing under unified Republican control of Washington is with bipartisan legislative efforts to simply relax the barriers that have been erected around studying marijuana.
There was already historic progress on that front when, earlier this month, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 became the first-ever standalone marijuana bill to make it through a congressional committee. It not only removes barriers to testing marijuana at the Department of Veterans Affairs but also forces officials there to send regular reports to Congress so lawmakers can track whether the VA is taking the testing legislation seriously. While the scope is narrow, pot proponents see the bill as a major breakthrough because, if tests show marijuana is good for veterans, then it could easily translate to the greater public.
“We shouldn’t have state legislatures deciding on what’s an adequate treatment for somebody,” Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), who chairs the Veteran’s Affairs Committee, tells Rolling Stone. Roe – a doctor and staunch conservative from a state where a first-time offense for possession of less than a half ounce of weed can land you in jail for a year – says he merely wants to see evidence.
“I need to know what are the risks, the benefits, the doses, the black box warnings. Does it work better than placebo? Does it not?” he says. “I don’t know why we took so long to get here.”
As the administration is still winding down two foreign wars that maimed many of our citizens – including a few current lawmakers from both parties – supporters say now is the perfect time to test marijuana treatment on vets, especially those dealing with PTSD or relying on a heavy opioid cocktail to deal with chronic pain.
“Today in America, there are clinical trials that need veterans to participate, but at the VA today we’re not even able to tell veterans of the existence of those trials,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) tells Rolling Stone.
Gaetz, a Tea Party darling who frequents the far right media circuit, says that while the dam is breaking slowly, a flood could well be coming. He says Exhibit A is the Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2018, which has support from some of the staunchest conservatives in the Capitol. Like the veterans bill, it simply allows more research to be done on weed. Gaetz says the broad support behind that bill shows the times have changed.
Push for Access to Banks
Marijuana businesses are currently locked out of the banking sector, even in states where weed is either recreationally or medicinally legal, and the Small Business Administration recently moved to stop any company involved in this green revolution from receiving loans. Bipartisan efforts are picking up steam to at least make it so marijuana businesses don’t have to be all cash, which comes with massive security risks. And without access to capital it’s hard to be a player in a capitalistic economy. A slew of bills deal with this issue – some allow marijuana businesses to simply access the banking system, while others go farther, allowing them to get the same tax breaks enjoyed by non-marijuana related businesses.
“We just shouldn’t deny a wider range of business opportunities,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) tells Rolling Stone. “And it’s not just people who cultivate – there are people who provide facilities, equipment, professional services. I mean it’s insane.”
Support is also slowly growing for an effort to completely remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances where it currently sits at Schedule I, alongside LSD and heroin. But the Marijuana Justice Act goes even further and takes aim at the racial disparity that marks American prisons by expunging the records of people convicted of federal marijuana crimes and investing money in communities left blighted by marijuana convictions.
Last summer, the Justice Act was introduced by Democratic Sen. Booker of New Jersey in the upper chamber and by Rep. Barbara Lee of California in the House – the first time both chambers have seen bills introduced to completely delist marijuana. It remains a long shot, but it’s picking up steam – and its supporters say this is just the beginning.
“The people are always ahead of their elected officials and, I think, what I see is the elected officials are catching up with the people,” Lee tells Rolling Stone. “So, that’s why I’m so excited about the movement that has got us this far. I want to encourage everyone to get to their elected officials, get to their members of Congress and tell them what this is about and why this needs to pass.”