Congress is running out of time to pass weed reform

As Republicans appear poised to take the House, pro-cannabis lawmakers have little time to pass comprehensive reform in the lame duck session before the GOP gains legislative power and potentially blocks any advancements.

The Red Wave that political commentators were expecting failed to materialize, but Republicans are positioned to take the House, wresting legislative power away from the Democrats. House Democrats have promoted and passed a number of pro-cannabis bills since the last midterms while their colleagues in the Senate have been more conservative in their approach to reform and have refused to pass the vast majority of cannabis bills from the House. It’s likely that even with a Democrat-controlled Senate, the next few years will be dark ones for cannabis reform.

Of course, the nation’s time under a Democrat-controlled Congress hasn’t proven very fruitful for cannabis reform either—despite the Democratic Party’s call for a “reasoned pathway to future legalization” of cannabis in 2016.

While we’ve seen a number of broad reform bills introduced over the last four years—including multiple legalization and decriminalization bills as well as SAFE Banking—the only successful piece of legislation to make it through both the House and Senate has been the cannabis research bill (currently on its way to the president’s desk).

If the Democratic Party is the party in favor of cannabis—and this is the best that they could do while in control of the legislative branch—it doesn’t bode well for marijuana’s chances in the coming years, when Republicans will be positioned to block any pro-cannabis movement in the House.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) says pro-cannabis Democrats have to act immediately if they want to pass reforms before the new Congress. During a recent interview on NJ Spotlight News, Booker said, “There’s a greater understanding on these issues—and I just have a feeling that we can get something done. But the problem we have right now is the clock. There’s very little time in this lame duck.” Otherwise, it could be another four years and potentially another president before we see a pro-cannabis House again.

Hope For the GOP?

But a GOP representative seems to think that her Republican colleagues can be swayed toward ending marijuana prohibition.

In a recent interview with Marijuana Moment, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) said that very few Republicans objected to data that was presented at a recent congressional cannabis hearing. She said she’s currently trying to sway incoming GOP leadership to support reform efforts.

“The only place that cannabis is controversial is in D.C.,” the congresswoman said. “I’m encouraging all my Republican colleagues to watch the hearing today. There were very few Republican objections.”

Mace still recognizes that getting cannabis reform passed with a Republican-controlled House will be tougher. “With Republicans in the majority in the House, if Democrats in the Senate want to get it done, both sides of the aisle have to work together so that any concerns that Democrats or Republicans have [are] addressed,” she said.

But swaying Republicans probably won’t be as easy as Mace believes. Very few GOP members of Congress support comprehensive cannabis law reform—much less decriminalization or full legalization of marijuana.

Trump and the Death Penalty

Former president Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he would be running in the 2024 election will almost certainly affect Republican leaders’ and voters’ attitudes about cannabis reform.

During his announcement speech, Trump made it clear that drug trafficking will be a major point of interest for his campaign. “We will wage war upon the cartels and stop the fentanyl and deadly drugs from killing 200,000 Americans per year. And I will ask Congress for legislation ensuring that drug dealers and human traffickers—these are terrible, terrible, horrible people who are responsible for death carnage and crime all over our country … We’re going to be asking that everyone who sells drugs, gets caught selling drugs, to receive the death penalty for their heinous acts.”

The former president spent several minutes of his speech discussing the benefits of a zero-tolerance drug policy as described to Trump by Chinese President Xi Jinping. “What is a quick trial? That’s where if you get caught dealing drugs, you have an immediate quick trial, and by the end of the day, you’re executed.”

During Trump’s presidency, he never fully committed to either standing for or against cannabis prohibition. Under the Trump administration, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum, which instructed federal prosecutors to avoid pursuing charges against state-legal cannabis operations. But Trump replaced Sessions in 2019 with William Barr, who said his predecessor made a mistake by killing the Cole Memo. “My approach to this would be to not upset settled expectations,” Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee in his confirmation hearing.

But now Trump might be ready to target cannabis. Legalization is considered a Democrat issue that has been associated—fairly or not—with soft-on-crime policies in Blue areas. As the spear tip of the Culture Wars, Trump may decide to take a hard right stance against anything supported by the left, including marijuana reform.

Last-Minute Reform

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is reportedly preparing a package bill of cannabis reforms known as SAFE Plus that is expected to include language from the popular SAFE Banking Act as well as expungement provisions from the CAOA. However, the package likely won’t include rescheduling provisions or protections for state cannabis industries. With Senate support behind the package, there’s a chance that Congress could pass it if it’s introduced quickly enough.

But lawmakers have only weeks to do so. The new Congress convenes in January.