Will Congress Manage To Pass Marijuana Reform During the Lame-Duck Session?
According to Gallup poll results released yesterday, 68 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal—the same level of support that Gallup reported in 2020 and 2021. “The only place where cannabis reform is unpopular is here in the halls of Congress,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R–S.C.) complained at a congressional hearing on “cannabis decriminalization” yesterday. During an interview on the Fox Business show Kennedy last night, Mace, who introduced a legalization bill last fall, sounded a more optimistic note, saying, “This is an issue where we can really come together.”
Is it? That depends on what we mean by this. Congress won’t repeal the federal ban on marijuana anytime soon. But it seems possible that more modest changes, such as cannabis banking reform and expungement of marijuana-related criminal records, could win enough bipartisan support to pass during the current lame-duck session.
“At a time of record public support for legalization and when the majority of states regulate cannabis use, it makes no sense from a political, fiscal, or cultural perspective for Congress to try to put this genie back in the bottle or to continue to place its collective head in the sand,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said at yesterday’s hearing, which was convened by the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “It is time for the federal government to end its nearly century-long experiment with cannabis prohibition.”
Republican members of Congress generally do not agree, at least publicly. The Democrat-controlled House has twice approved bills that would have removed marijuana from the federal list of “controlled substances.” But that sort of fundamental reform has never attracted enough Republican support in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, where Democrats currently hold just 50 seats.
The situation in the Senate will remain essentially unchanged next session, when Democrats will hold 51 seats at most, depending on the outcome of the Georgia runoff. Meanwhile, Republicans will control the House, making it unlikely that legalization could win approval there. And even if there were enough Republican votes to legalize marijuana, President Joe Biden opposes that step, notwithstanding all his talk about the injustice of the war on weed.
Biden is an (almost) octogenarian who for decades was keen to show that Democrats could be even tougher on drugs than Republicans. Despite his avowed transformation from a gung-ho drug warrior into a criminal justice reformer, old habits die hard. But while Biden’s continued support for pot prohibition makes psychological sense, it does not make political sense when more than two-thirds of Americans, including 81 percent of Democrats, think he is wrong.
Republican resistance to federal legalization is less surprising but still a bit of a puzzle. Based on Gallup data for 2018 to 2022, 70 percent of independents, 51 percent of Republicans, and 49 percent of conservatives support legalization. That suggests there should be enough wiggle room for 10 Republican senators to agree, especially since maintaining the federal ban is inconsistent with their party’s avowed support for state autonomy.
Thirty-seven states recognize cannabis as a medicine, and 21 also have legalized recreational use. Twenty-five Republican senators represent states in the first group, while six represent states in the second. When so many states have rejected pot prohibition, classifying all marijuana suppliers as federal felons is an obvious affront to federalist principles.
So far those p
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