In my last column, I reviewed the Trump administration’s treatment of cannabis. I would love to say that we discussed the administration’s cannabis policy, but that would imply that such a policy exists. What we saw instead was an incoherent assortment of contradictory statements from various members of the administration—not really a policy by any conventional definition.
When we turn to Congress, the picture is somewhat different. We see a wide variety of positions, ranging from fully legalizing on the one hand to doubling down on prohibition on the other. But we should expect as much from a body comprised of more than 500 members from all 50 states (as opposed to the White House, where we typically expect policy to be a bit more cogent, or at least we did before this administration took office).
The variety of viewpoints notwithstanding, in the current Congress we see a legislative body that is very slowly, but very steadily, inching toward policies more favorable to the cannabis community.
It would be tempting, and gratifying, to think that members of Congress are finally coming to their senses. After all, the arguments in favor of ending cannabis prohibition are essentially unassailable at this point. Even drug warriors like Kevin Sabet have stopped arguing that cannabis is dangerous and harmful. He has been reduced to arguing that legalization will be harmful because it will usher in the new corporate interests comprising Big Marijuana. Pretty rich for a guy who gets most of his funding from Big Pharma, but I digress.
If all it took were a little common sense to move Congress, we would have won this war a long time ago. But Congress is a deliberate body, where the laws of gravity and inertia seem to work even more intensely than in the rest of the universe. The shift in Congress comes not from common sense, but primarily from the bottom up, due to changes at the state level.
In the 2016 election, the voters of four states passed medical cannabis laws, while the voters of four others legalized adult use of cannabis. That means that the four new medical states, and the eight Senators and 33 Representatives who represent them, now have a dog in this fight. The four new rec states, along with their eight Senators and 68 Representatives, now have a much bigger dog to worry about.
16% of the Senate and more than 20% of the House woke up on November 9, 2016 with a new cannabis program to protect. This led to the creation of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, a formally registered, bipartisan Congressional group. Founded by four U.S. Representatives—Republicans Don Young (AK) and Dana Rohrbacher (CA), and Democrats Earl Blumenauer (OR) and Jared Polis (CO)—the group is dedicated to working to harmonize state and federal cannabis laws and ultimately end federal prohibition.
Note that this is a solidly bipartisan group. In fact, cannabis is unique in that our support doesn’t cleave neatly along party lines. Medical and recreational cannabis laws thrive in both red and blue states. We count among our allies both progressive Democrats and states’ rights Republicans, and we often find ourselves courting the folks in between. This support from both sides of the aisle can be a huge advantage in a Congress so gridlocked that it rarely accomplishes anything significant.
The upshot of all of this incremental, bottom up change is a gradual shift in Congress in favor of pro-cannabis policies. A few years ago, cannabis wasn’t even a topic of conversation in Congress. Now we have ten cannabis bills pending in the House and three more in the Senate.
These laws run the gamut, with some proposing to reschedule cannabis while others aim to deschedule it entirely. We have legislation to address the lack of banking for our industry and the punitive tax consequences of 280E. There are bills to allow more research, to allow veterans access to medical cannabis and to create a federal cannabis excise tax.
Organizations like the Oregon Cannabis Association (OCA) and the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) continue to lobby hard for these bills. Each of those organizations is planning lobby days in the next couple of months. This June, the OCA will send about 50 members to the capital to discuss cannabis policy with, Senators, Representatives and their staffs.
It seems unlikely that most of these bills will pass in this Congress, but a few have a pretty good shot. In particular, legislation allowing state legal cannabis businesses access to banking and fair tax rules probably stand the best chance of moving forward.
Perhaps the most important of these proposed laws is the Rohrbacher-Blumenauer Amendment (previously known as the Rohrbacher-Farr Amendment). This addition to the appropriations bill prohibits the Justice Department from using any of its funding to interfere with state-legal medical cannabis businesses. We expect this amendment to be extended until the end of the fiscal year. We also hope to see it expanded to cover recreational, as well as medical cannabis.
This war will not be won overnight. It has taken many years to achieve the gains we have made so far, and a great deal of work remains. But the grounds are shifting in Congress, and our time is coming.
Just ask Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, “Americans across the country agree that it’s time for the federal government to get out-of-the-way on cannabis,” he recently told me. “There is growing bipartisan support in Congress to end the banking and tax disparities faced by the cannabis industry, and to support research exploring its medical benefits. Your voice can help achieve these goals this Congress.”