Washington D.C. is on the heels of a major shake-up this month. As President Donald Trump nears the third year of his term, the 116th Congress will begin session on January 3 with new Democratic control of the House of Representatives (235 of 435 seats) and strengthened Republican control of the Senate (53 of 100 seats).
This divided party rule of the federal government may prove to be an obstacle to many legislative efforts over the second half of Trump’s second term. But it may also prove to be an opportunity for the marijuana reform movement, which is gaining steam among both parties, despite that Washington has devolved further into partisan bickering on almost any other issue.
It is worth noting the absence of two Republican Representatives who have been critical on the cannabis issue going forward: Dana Rohrabacher and Pete Sessions.
Rohrabacher of California’s 48th District — considered to be the most pro-marijuana Republican Representative — lost his re-election bid to Democrat Harley Rouda by just under six points. Rohrabacher is perhaps best known for co-sponsoring the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment in 2014, which prohibits the Justice Department from using federal funds to restrict state-level medical marijuana programs. The Cannabis Business Times states that this Amendment has been included in every Congressional budget since it first passed. Rohrabacher and a bipartisan group of Representatives also co-founded the Congressional Cannabis Caucus to support further marijuana reforms.
Notably, the new member-elect Rouda has not taken a strong position on marijuana as he prepares to take over Rohrabacher’s seat. He criticized his opponent in a couple of tweets over the summer of 2017 for his connections to the cannabis industry and political activities in Europe. But on April 20, he made a statement in support of Senator Chuck Schumer’s marijuana decriminalization bill. “People should not be going to prison for possession or use of marijuana,” Rouda said. “It's time for common sense reform in Washington.”
Across the country, a different kind of Republican is also saying goodbye to his career. Representative Sessions of Texas' 32nd District — among the most anti-marijuana Republicans in Congress — lost his re-election to Democrat Colin Allred by just over six points.
Sessions has used his power as chairman of the House Rules Committee to effectively block any marijuana reform amendments from even receiving a vote in the House. According to the Marijuana Moment, during the 115th Congress starting in January 2017, the Rules Committee under Rep. Sessions prevented at least 34 marijuana and drug-policy reforms from advancing.
Sessions’s challenger Allred picked up on the marijuana issue during his race. “It is unfortunate that Pete Sessions refuses to acknowledge that medical marijuana can help our veterans coming back from war who are struggling with PTSD and chronic pain,” he said in a statement.
“They want it, their doctors want to prescribe it, and Congressman Sessions is standing in the way,” he said in a separate interview.
Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) commented on what the shakeup in Congress means for the future of marijuana reform, specifically in regard to the Democrats having gained at least 40 seats. “Support for marijuana in Congress is stronger than ever,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that Representative Rohrabacher will no longer be a leader on this issue, but his successor is also likely to share his positions."
Regardless of Congress' makeup, support for marijuana law reform has been building, anyway, Tvert added, noting that Sessions’ loss to Allred is not necessarily consequential, since he would have lost his leadership position on the Rules Committee even if he had been re-elected.
Tvert highlighted legislation introduced in either chamber that may pass in the new session, such as the STATES Act sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO). The act effectively exempts marijuana from most federal restrictions in the Controlled Substances Act in states that have legalized it. This means the federal government cannot undermine medical or recreational marijuana industries and businesses.
The bill also allows legal marijuana businesses to access banking and financial services, giving them the opportunity to transition away from cash-only operations. Because of the federal marijuana prohibition, banks fear prosecution for drug trafficking or money laundering if they hold accounts for marijuana businesses.
Lack of banking access has become a more salient issue, and is also the subject of the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE Banking Act), introduced earlier this year by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Merkley has stated this reform is critical for public safety, since cash-only businesses are more vulnerable to organized crime, money laundering, theft, and tax and payroll fraud. Steve Mnuchin, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Trump, has shown support for similar reforms on this issue.
And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg for progressive marijuana reforms introduced in Congress. Among the more high-profile legislative efforts is the Marijuana Justice Act, introduced by Senator Cory Booker. The bill would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, expunge criminal records for people convicted of low-level offenses, create a half million dollar "community reinvestment fund" for communities most devastated by the War on Drugs, and even cut federal law enforcement and prison funds from states with especially disproportionate marijuana enforcement in low-income and minority communities.
Tvert believes the divided party rule of Congress will not slow down the progress of marijuana law reform. “We’ve seen a lot of leadership among Republicans, especially on the Senate side, that we hope will translate into increased support and further movement on this issue in the coming session,” Tvert said. “There have been a growing number of Republican co-sponsors on these pieces of reform legislation and with the Democrats now in control of the House we’re hopeful that some of these reforms will advance and be signed into law next year.”
The White House isn't an obstacle, either, he added, given some promising remarks in support of marijuana law reform. "President Trump has said he would likely support the STATES Act, which is a stronger statement than has ever been made by a sitting president," Tvert said.
“The American people will have to get civically engaged and publicly participate in this upcoming session to ensure federal change in the next two years,” said Kamani Jefferson, a marijuana lobbyist for the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC). “It's simply a once in a lifetime opportunity to get behind the politics of cannabis. The fact that Congress is proactively talking about bills to resolve banking, to keep this a states’ rights issue and to provide equity to folks from areas disproportionately harmed by prohibition is all promising.”