We’ve come a long way from the days when President Bill Clinton repeatedly insisted that he “did not inhale” marijuana. While our representatives and senators may not be openly toking between budget debates, the conversation on cannabis has moved out of the shadows and into the spotlight. This isn’t just one faction of super-liberal Democrats leading the charge, either — in 2018, marijuana has established itself as a bipartisan issue, despite what some of the less-enlightened members of the current administration may claim.
As one would expect, these bills run the gamut from laws intended to aid agricultural workers to those with the express purpose of easing access to cannabis for military veterans. One prominent thread is the formerly dormant battle between individual states and federal prohibition, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions exacerbated last month by rescinding the “Cole Memo” — an Obama-era guidance that directed federal law enforcement to not interfere with states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use.
On Feb. 7, 2017, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) seemed to anticipate this move with his introduction of the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. Those in the industry will likely recall Rohrabacher’s name from the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment — formerly Rohrabacher-Farr — a budget rider that has prohibited the Justice Department from using federal funds to stop state-approved medical-marijuana programs. As the fate of Rohrabacher-Blumenauer remains tied to Congress’ highly contentious budget debates, it thus comes as no surprise that Rep. Rohrabacher would advocate for a permanent version of his amendment, one that would not require annual renewals.
Another Republican-led initiative is the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, introduced by Rep. James Comer (R-KY). Backed by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, Rep. Comer’s bill reflects a growing desire to separate the legality of industrial hemp from the federal prohibitions that currently make marijuana a controlled substance. Given that Kentucky is home to one of the nation’s most-established hemp markets, it makes sense that Rep. Comer would lend his support to the cause. Labeling industrial hemp as an illicit product is simply ludicrous.
Other bills are quite narrow in their scope, but nonetheless notable in their intent.
California’s own Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is the primary sponsor for the Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, which would force the Attorney General to decide whether cannabidiol (CBD) should be exempted from the Controlled Substances Act. Then there’s the Better Drive Act that Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) brought to the House, a piece of legislation geared toward stopping the suspension of drivers licenses in relation to drug offenses.
However, the bill that has received a lion’s share of the public’s attention is the Marijuana Justice Act put forth by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
Designed to both remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act altogether and also provide restorative justice to the countless individuals who have suffered as a result of the War on Drugs, the Marijuana Justice Act was regarded as a radical piece of legislation when Sen. Booker introduced it in August. Oakland Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee submitted a companion bill to the House on Jan. 17, 2018, and in a recent interview with SF Weekly, she confirmed her intentions to see it passed.
“It’s not symbolic,” she said. “I think people who know me know that I’m not going to let it rest until we get this done — but it may not be done overnight.”
It’s true that for many of these bills, the path to law is long and arduous. First comes the solicitation of cosponsors — fellow senators and representatives willing to endorse the legislation and pledge their votes to it. Rep. Lee’s House bill currently has 24 cosponsors, while Sen. Booker’s version in the Senate has two: Sen. Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Wyden (D-OR). But it is often the outpouring of public demand that can lead a legislator to become a cosponsor, meaning the public has a real role to play if they wish to see these bills become law.
The current glut of potential legislation does mean there is some overlap — for instance, the Respect States and Citizens’ Rights Act and the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act are two 2017 bills that are also targeting the removal of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.
Ultimately, we can expect some consolidation to take place as momentum builds and select bills emerge as the most likely to succeed, but for now, the takeaway is clear: Cannabis is on Congress’ radar, and it’s not going anywhere.
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
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