A long-sought bill to end the federal ban on marijuana – and end nearly a quarter-century of conflict between state and federal law – is dying on the vine on Capitol Hill. Can you guess which party is responsible?
You might assume that socially conservative Republicans are the chief obstacle to a bill that would remove marijuana and its psychoactive component, THC, from the list of controlled substances for which the feds deem there is no medically appropriate use. Or you might figure that the opposition comes from rural states that have been particularly hard hit by the opioid and methamphetamine epidemic, which transformed addiction from an inner-city scourge to a national one. These would have been my first guesses.
Instead, as Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives prepared to bring a bill to the floor this month, fierce opposition emerged from centrists in their own party, according to an account in The Hill. Their objections were not so much to marijuana legalization itself, although some expressed qualms that the bill goes too far in other ways. (The bill also facilitates expungement of marijuana convictions in some circumstances and establishes a federal tax on marijuana products to help states set up regulatory structures.) The main issue was the optics of pushing to legalize pot at a time when Congress has been unable to agree on another coronavirus relief package. These lawmakers do not want to go home to face voters without one. It seems they don’t want to be accused of prioritizing pot-puffers over the medical and economic victims of a respiratory disease.
Some of their Republican colleagues, in fact, offered a preview of exactly the sort of criticism they can expect to receive. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Texas, tweeted: “We are dealing with a pandemic and mob violence is terrorizing major cities – so what’s first up on Speaker Pelosi’s agenda after a long House recess? No Joint Left Behind – A bill legalizing pot!” It’s not hard to extrapolate what a campaign attack ad would look like.
Most voters must recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic and the legal status of cannabis could hardly have less to do with one another. This is even before you factor in polls showing a majority of Americans, including more than 50% of Republicans, support some form of legalization. Centrist Democrats know this as well as anyone else. But these days, being a centrist Democrat means you represent a district that probably leans Republican, or is at best a toss-up. In these places, you can’t afford to needlessly alienate even a small slice of the electorate.
The centrists certainly have a point in observing that having the House pass a pot bill this month is not going to change marijuana’s legal status any time soon. The GOP-controlled Senate is hardly likely to take up the matter, let alone pass the bill, in the current Congress. And if it did, the current twice-divorced president happens to be both a teetotaler and a born-again social conservative – at on least some issues, such as abortion. It’s anyone’s guess how he would handle such legislation if it landed on his desk.
All this is unfortunate, because the existing legal situation is an untenable no man’s land. So far 11 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have ostensibly legalized recreational cannabis use. Another 22 states say they permit marijuana use for medical purposes under varying conditions. But all of this is really a fiction, because all these jurisdictions are part of the United States. Under federal law, marijuana remains illegal for all purposes everywhere in the country.
The result is that the industry operates in a realm of legal and financial limbo. Many institutions are unwilling to do business with it, at least overtly. Plenty of cannabis businesses must operate as cash-only enterprises, for example, due to banks and credit card companies that don’t wish to run afoul of federal law. Enforcement is inevitably spotty and arbitrary; any prosecution is bound to be selective. The status quo is an invitation to subterfuge at best, and to discrimination and corruption at worst.
It is unfortunate that pandemic politics is preventing the House from at least staking out a sensible position on the issue. That would push the ball into the hands of the currently GOP-controlled Senate. I suspect Republican lawmakers would hear from plenty of their own constituents, to the effect that the current arrangement is unsuitable for the world as it exists today. That’s not going to be an easy lift. But before we can get to the party that needs the most convincing, we need to get sensible legislation past the people who are already most of the way there.