Thursday, December 8, 2022
Is significant marijuana reform coming from Congress now very unlikely for now very many years?
As mentioned in this post from the past weekend, lots and lots of folks had seeemingly come to believe that significant federal marijuana reform was quite likely to get enacted in Congress this month. But this new Politco piece, headlined "How the plan to pass a weed package went awry, " not only explains why the prospects for reform are dim this month, but perhaps for many years to come. Here are excerpts:
Democrats almost had a weed deal — for real this time. For weeks, a bipartisan group of senators worked to negotiate a historic package in the office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The ideologically diverse crew included Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
The bargain they ultimately reached represents the broad spectrum of cannabis issues: banking, guns and criminal record expungements. The package gave progressives, libertarians and conservatives all something to be happy about. But in the final days of negotiations over the National Defense Authorization Act, which they hoped would serve as a must-pass vehicle for the cannabis package, enthusiasm evaporated. The unraveling of the plan was sparked by top Republicans attacking cannabis banking legislation that was the centerpiece of the deal....
The SAFE Banking Act, which the cannabis package revolves around, would allow banks to offer financial services to the weed industry.... SAFE was then paired with the HOPE Act — a bill introduced by Reps. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) and progressive stalwart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that creates grants for expungements at the state level, lending it a “states rights” component. Finally, the GRAM Act — introduced by late Alaska GOP Rep. and former co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus Don Young — was thrown in. It would protect marijuana users’ right to own a firearm.
Support was there: At least 10 Republicans have co-sponsored or signaled they support the SAFE Act to date. Co-sponsor Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said in November he was open to SAFE and HOPE, especially if Daines was on board. On Thursday, Daines said conversations were productive and Paul claimed that there were more than 60 votes for the package.
But the potential deal began to fall apart when key Republican senators took aim at the cannabis banking provision. On Monday, staffers for Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other senators involved in the deliberations met with representatives from the Justice Department to discuss concerns about how agency officials would enforce the bill. Following that meeting, Grassley’s office released a statement attacking the bill.
Then on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor to rip Democrats for trying to add extraneous proposals to the defense spending bill. “We’re talking about a grab bag of miscellaneous pet priorities, like making our financial system more sympathetic to illegal drugs,” he said.
Even stalwart supporters got cold feet about attaching the cannabis package to the NDAA. Cramer and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who both support the banking bill, said a defense spending package wasn’t the place for it. “It dilutes the proper role of this place,” Cramer said, suggesting that the deal be given a full committee markup and floor time instead.
The NDAA isn’t the last piece of legislation that will likely be passed in the lame duck, but the same obstacles will apply to an omnibus funding package that’s being negotiated. Simply put, if McConnell remains opposed to SAFE, it won’t make it into a major package.
But the bill isn’t dead yet: Paul is still bullish on its prospects, saying he is confident there are more than 60 senators in favor of SAFE if it were to receive a standalone floor vote. Democrats left this until the last minute, though, and the chances that the Senate can find any floor time for a standalone SAFE “plus” package before the end of the year are slim....
Daines said he’s focused on getting something passed before the end of the year, but other GOP supporters, including Tuberville, said they may just need to deal with it in the next year. Republicans are set to take over the House in January, dimming the chances for SAFE. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has voted in favor of the bill, but he hasn’t signaled that cannabis is something he wants to spend time on.
It may be that after more than three years of trying to see SAFE passed, Democrats took a gamble with the lame duck and ran out of time to get it passed.
Because I am not an expert in congressional procedure, I do not know if there would be a way in 2023 for a SAFE+ package of reforms to make its way through the new Congress as a stand alone bill. But I do know that if Senate Minority Leader McConnell and and the future House Speaker McCarthy are not excited about moving forward any federal marijuana reform legislation, then no such legislation will move forward in the next Congress. And, as political prognosticators know, there is a pretty good chance that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could become Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell come January 2025. Thus, an oppositional Senator McConnell could very well scuttle any federal cannabis reform efforts for the next four years and maybe longer.
That said, Prez Biden and his agencies can possibly move forward with reforms under the CSA without Congress involved. And, like the research bill that became law recently, there may be smaller reforms (included needed criminal justice measures) that Senator McConnell and other marijuana skeptics may not aggressively oppose. And, with the red states of Oklahoma and Ohio possibly embracing full legalization in 2023, the broad politics here are always in flux. So, I do not think that all is lost with federal reform even as the plans and paths get much less certain.
Of course, 23 months ago, when Prez Biden was picking his cabinet and the Democrats won the Georgia run-offs to take control of the Senate, many believed federal marijuana reforms coming from a Democratic-controlled Congress would be right around the corner. Fast forward to the end of 2022, and Congress in a few weeks will no longer be controlled entirely by Democrats, and they have remarkably little to show on cannabis reform for their time in full control.