The U.S. House of Representatives will take a historic vote this month, one that will decide whether they’ll finally legalize cannabis federally. It will almost certainly pass.
Then, it will almost certainly fail in the Senate.
Nevertheless, the action will be remembered as a major step toward legalization, which is likely to happen sometime in the coming months or years.
That is, assuming we still have an American republic in which duly elected legislators pass laws in accordance to the United States Constitution.
Even in the Senate, legalization has bipartisan support, just as it does in the House. Banks want it to allow them to do business with a big, new, lucrative client—one that is drawing billions of dollars from investors and consumers. About two-thirds of Americans support legalization, up from just 12 percent in 1969 and 30 percent in 2000. Pot is legal for adults in 11 states and Washington, D.C. It’s legal for medical use in all but six states.
The Prohibition Era is over, but the federal government simply hasn’t caught up to the rest of the country, so the effects, both severe and wide-ranging, linger.
Interstate transport of weed is still a major felony, curtailing the growth of an industry that employs several times more people than the coal industry. Meanwhile, federally chartered banks are still hesitant to do business with cannabis companies because of the potential criminal liability. Many doctors, especially those working for the Veteran’s Administration, remain hesitant to even discuss cannabis as a medical treatment.
In 2018, about 663,000 people were arrested on cannabis-related charges. Even as the country roils over the treatment of Black suspects by cops, Black people are 3.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested on pot charges.
All of these problems would be relieved by passage of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act (MORE), the bill slated for a floor vote later this month. The only people against it are the few remaining prohibitionists, who have no power, and a few Republican senators.
Unfortunately for proponents of legalization, one of those senators is the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. The Senate leader’s opposition to legalization (and other legislation, such as the SAFE Banking Act) is often viewed as a mystery.
McConnell was a major force behind the 2018 legalization of hemp, marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin. Hemp is a big industry in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, so that explains his support for it. But why hold up legalization of pot?
Most likely, he doesn’t care much about it, but Kentucky is still a conservative state, and as long as weed remains illegal, he can use it as a culture-war cudgel.
He did just that in July when the Senate debated a package of coronavirus relief proposals. One of them included liability protection for banks dealing with cannabis businesses and a line about promoting diversity in cannabis. It was a minor provision in relation to the bill as a whole, but McConnell rode it hard, warning that passing the Covid relief package would “send diversity detectives into the cannabis industry.”
In the end, cannabis was left out of the coronavirus relief package entirely.
While support for legalization is bipartisan, opposition is not: it’s essentially all Republican. That’s why Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said last month that if Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, win the White House in November, he thinks pot will be legalized in 2021.
“It should be, amongst other things, a recognition that so much of what has happened over the last 20 to 25 years in our country is that we have criminalized being Black, being brown, being immigrant, being poor, substance issues, mental health issues, homelessness issues,” Markey said.
Biden has mostly maintained his staunch opposition to pot, last year repeating his declaration that it’s a “gateway drug.” But Harris has not; she opposed adult-use legalization up until a few years ago. Now, she’s sponsoring the MORE Act in the Senate.