Advocates were already worried that cannabis reform would be ignored in Congress with Republicans in control of the House. But things are looking even darker now that Kevin McCarthy has been elected as House Speaker after making numerous concessions to the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
With Senate Democrats seemingly unwilling to move forward with comprehensive cannabis reform and the House under Freedom Caucus rule, the likelihood of seeing passage of even the most modest reforms in the coming years is dwindling.
McCarthy On Weed
As of late, McCarthy has voted in favor of popular bipartisan cannabis reform legislation, but he has historically taken staunch positions against reform efforts and opposes the legalization of both adult-use and medical cannabis.
He voted for the Medical Marijuana Research Act and the SAFE Banking Act, but voted against every other cannabis reform issue that he’s encountered, including the MORE Act—which would have descheduled cannabis from the list of controlled substances. During the pandemic, in response to House leaders’ announcement that they would be voting on the legislation, McCarthy accused House Democrats of choosing to focus on “cannabis and cats” instead of rolling out additional COVID-19 relief legislation. “They’re picking weed over the workers,” he said at the time.
McCarthy voted against approving the Rohrabacher/Farr Amendment—which blocks the Department of Justice (DOJ) from accessing federal funds to prosecute state-legal medical cannabis operations. In August 2021, McCarthy wrote a letter to a constituent who had asked about whether he would support the Rohrabacher/Farr Amendment, but he refused to answer.
He also voted against the Veterans Equal Access Amendment—which would have allowed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans, halt the practice of denying security clearances to federal workers for past cannabis use and allow scientists to freely study Schedule I substances.
Freedom Caucus Ransom
But even if McCarthy was a pro-cannabis lawmaker looking to reform the nation’s policies, his hands would likely be tied by the new House rules that are being implemented as a condition of his election.
Last week the House adopted the new rules following a political tug-of-war between House Republicans. For the first time since before the Civil War, it took 15 ballots before McCarthy finally won his seat—the longest contest for the election in 164 years. Ultra-conservative Republicans in the Freedom Caucus refused to hand him the position unless he agreed to their terms.
McCarthy ultimately agreed and pushed through the new House Rules Package, which were passed last week. Lawmakers voted 220 to 213 mostly along party lines, with one Republican voting against. Most notably, the new rules would allow any single House member to force a “motion to vacate” the speakership. This formerly held rule was changed in 2019 under former speaker Nancy Pelosi to require a majority from either party to agree to the motion.
This new rule means that McCarthy’s seat will be under constant threat from the Freedom Caucus or any other group that dislikes his decisions. Under these constraints, even bipartisan support for cannabis reform bills like SAFE Banking won’t be enough to push them through if the far-right caucus chooses to stand against them.
House Republicans have also promised to consider each of the annual appropriations bills separately rather than attempt to pass an omnibus spending bill, cutting off the chance of attaching cannabis reform to larger bills—a tactic that lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to use last year to pass the SAFE Banking Act.
McCarthy has also reportedly agreed to abstain from negotiating with Senate leaders and taking up Senate-backed bills that do not conform with the caucus’ designs.
Freedom Caucus and Cannabis
Whether the Freedom Caucus supports cannabis reform is still up in the air. Although support for federal prohibition of the drug has been a hard-line stance for the Republican party for decades, individual caucus members have shown support for cannabis reform. And most of the caucus voted in favor of the Trump administration’s Right To Try law. The law allows terminal patients to try drugs that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
It’s hard to tell exactly how the caucus will affect cannabis reform efforts in the future, because it does not disclose its membership, and the group has not publicly voiced it’s position.
On the one hand, the caucus says it supports smaller government and less federal intervention—seemingly placing it in line with more Libertarian-leaning Republicans and populists who oppose cannabis prohibition on the grounds that it interferes with state laws.
But the caucus has also repeatedly said that it wants to push the Republican party further right and has backed social conservatism at every turn. Since most social conservatives tend to support prohibition, it seems likely that the caucus will block any reform efforts. It’s just too soon to tell.
Unfortunately, it seems as though advocate hopes for reform will hinge greatly on whether House Republicans will decide to take up the pro-cannabis banner—a highly unlikely scenario. But Senate Democrats have repeatedly failed to pass reform bills in the past, despite paying lip service to the issue. As recently-retired Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) told the House Rules Committee in December in response to the failure of the SAFE Banking Act, “We passed it to the Senate seven times to watch it go nowhere—under Democrats and Republicans—so the blame goes across both sides.”
“The real problem isn’t the Republicans or the Democrats, it’s the other house,” he said.