Chem Tales: Now is the Time for Congress to Act on Cannabis

The bills are written. The support is obvious. It’s time for Congress to get the job done.

These days, there are not many victories to celebrate in Washington, D.C.

Despite an unprecedented number of serious issues in need of solutions, the U.S. Senate has been paralyzed by the unwillingness of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow any bills but those he champions to reach the floor for a vote. Meanwhile, following the 2018 midterm elections, the House of Representatives has grown progressively bolder in its desire to actually get something done. For these reasons, the timing may be perfect to attempt a bridging of the gap in the name of legalized cannabis.

Efforts are already underway. On July 23, presidential contender Kamala Harris introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana in partnership with House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). Though many other Democratic candidates in the race for 2020 have also committed to ending federal cannabis prohibition, Harris is the first to suggest a 5 percent federal tax on marijuana sales to fund programs aimed at assisting people adversely affected by the War on Drugs.

Once upon a time, you’d be risking career suicide if you introduced a bill to legalize cannabis in Congress. Now, it’s the belief of Sen. Harris’s team that her 2020 challengers are not going far enough in their plans for marijuana reform. Her bill with Rep. Nadler, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, joins other bills written with the express purpose of ending federal cannabis prohibition.

Prior to the MORE Act, the bill with the most momentum was the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act. On June 7, 2018 Senators Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Elizabeth Warren introduced the bill, which more narrowly focuses on giving priority to local laws, to the Senate. A companion bill for the House was introduced by Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and David Joyce (R-Ohio) on the same day.

Each bill has pros and cons, with the MORE Act quite literally living up to its name in terms of its social justice considerations. The caveat of dreaming bigger is that it lessens the chances that those in the middle will go along quietly. That’s the big advantage the STATES Act has over its rival: bipartisan support. Joyce is a Republican from Ohio. His willingness to team with Blumenauer to introduce the STATES Act in the House of Representatives gives reason to think that Joyce’s peers in the Senate might do the same. 

On the other hand, the MORE Act has the support of the House Judiciary Committee in the form of its chairman, Nadler. Writing for Forbes, veteran cannabis reporter Tom Angell concludes that Nadler’s connection to the MORE Act makes it likely to be “the vehicle through which the chamber considers ending prohibition in any votes over the coming months.”  In other words, Democratic leadership is behind the MORE Act.

They should be.

Unless the entire system is built with equity in mind, legislators will instead find themselves trying to shoehorn equity components into an industry already full of operators who feel they’ve paid their dues and earned their right be there.  It’s a messy scene, as noted in SF Weekly’s recent cover story concerning regulated cannabis in the Bayview. Restorative justice works best as a precursor to legalized cannabis. By creating a system centered around equity, we can ensure that marginalized individuals who were denied housing, jobs, or their freedom as a result of cannabis-related arrests and convictions are given a clear record and the first opportunity to make legal money from pot.

What’s ideal and what has the best chance of becoming law are rarely one in the same. Such is the case with these two bills. While it would be hyperbolic to characterize the MORE Act as ideal, in context, it certainly goes farther than the STATES Act on the restorative justice front. But can it pass without the support of Republicans, who are likely to be less adversarial with one of their own involved?  It will likely come down to public support.

In October 2018, Gallup reported that 66 percent of American adults wanted to see marijuana legalized nationally. Given today’s extremely divisive political climate, finding an issue that roughly two-thirds of Americans agree on is tantamount to a desert mirage. In this case, however, what we’re seeing is very real, and it may just prove to be the difference-maker when it finally comes to time to vote — and not just in Congress.

With each passing day, it grows more obvious that the question is shifting. Whereas once the concern was whether federal cannabis reform needed Republican support to succeed, a new, more tantalizing query has now emerged in its place: Do Republicans running for re-election in 2020 really have any other choice? 

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