It’s February and we’re living under a new presidential administration. Meaning it’s a brand new day for the future of cannabis in the United States. While former President Donald Trump wasn’t explicitly anti-weed, indicating on the 2016 campaign trail that he considered it a state’s rights issue, his administration was no friend to marijuana — stalling House-passed bills related to marijuana convictions, rescinding the 2013 Cole Memorandum (which directed federal prosecutors not to pursue marijuana prosecutions in weed-legal states), and even going as far as planning to remove protections for state medical marijuana laws in his 2021 fiscal budget.
Generally speaking, the Biden-Harris administration comes as something of a relief for weed lovers. But Joe isn’t exactly Tommy Chong and Harris was the Attorney General of California (with a tough stance on marijuana-related crime) before her Senate run. So while progress was essentially halted under Trump, don’t expect joints in the White House just yet. Still, there’s good reason to believe that we’re moving in a more progressive direction.
Here’s the current state of cannabis and where things seem headed under our new President and VP:
President Biden’s View:
Looking at Biden’s track record in the Senate regarding marijuana is… not very encouraging. In 1986, then-Senator Biden introduced the Comprehensive Narcotics Control Act, which helped to strengthen the Federal Government’s already strict drug enforcement policies, sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1993, which then led directly to the 1994 Crime Bill (the notorious bill that introduced mandatory minimum sentencing), set up the three-strikes mandatory life sentence, and had a tremendous impact on mass incarceration.
To President Biden’s credit, his views on cannabis seem to have evolved since his days as a member of the United States senate. On the 2020 campaign trail, Biden indicated that he believed cannabis needed to be “basically legalized” but wasn’t for full federal legalization. According to Politco, Biden campaigned on a policy that included eliminating marijuana-related criminal penalties, erasing marijuana-related criminal records, but ultimately left recreational legalization to the states. Certainly a mild improvement over the previous four-years and a definite improvement on what was being proposed by Trump for 2021.
Vice President Harris’ View:
Vice President Kamala Harris has her own troubled and disheartening legacy with marijuana and incarceration. Forbes reports that during her time as a prosecutor in California, Vice President Harris oversaw more than 1,900 cannabis-related convictions in San Francisco, an increase over her predecessor.
According to the Sacramento Bee, while a California prosecutor, Harris opposed the state’s 2010 initiative to legalize the drug in certain instances. As attorney general, Harris did not back 2016s Proposition 64, which would go on to create the state’s now-booming legal cannabis market. However, as a Senator, Harris’ views shifted. According to USA Today, while in the Senate, Vice President Harris co-sponsored a Senate proposal along with Sen. Cory Booker that would make marijuana legal, expunge criminal records, and create a reinvestment fund to aid communities directly impacted by the war on drugs.
On the 2020 campaign trail, Kamala Harris doubled-down on that position, saying during the October vice-presidential debate that a Biden-Harris administration “will decriminalize marijuana, and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana crimes.” This is a huge step in the right direction — expunging criminal records and attempting to right the injustices of the drug war are incredibly important moves — but Harris did not back full federal legalization.
Where Does Congress Stand?
Part of the reason cannabis progress stalled under the Trump administration was then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Despite broad bipartisan support for cannabis, Mitch McConnell wouldn’t let cannabis-related bills come to the floor for a debate, let alone a vote. The Democratic Party now holds a majority in both the House and Senate, meaning it’s going to be a lot easier for the Biden Administration to deliver on some of their campaign promises and govern in the most effective way.
But don’t celebrate just yet, the Democratic majority in the Senate is slim, with a 50-50 share. That will prove itself to sometimes be a good thing, as Vice President Harris will act as the tie-breaking vote, but will require a completely unified front on the part of the democratic caucus, which is easier said than done. This almost guarantees that a vote directly on federal legalization won’t happen in the next four years, instead expect legalization to come piecemeal in order to garner bipartisan support.
There are some positive signs, though:
The Senate is now under the Majority leadership of Sen. Chuck Schumer, who Politico reports is the chief sponsor of the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would federally decriminalize marijuana and create a trust fund for small businesses owned by minorities, women, and marginalized groups operating in the cannabis industry. Sen. Schumer is the first high ranking politician of any political party to support full nationwide legalization.
The time has come to decriminalize marijuana in this country.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) September 14, 2020
In a recent interview with former NBA player Al Harrington — who owns his own brand of cannabis, Viola — Schumer confirmed that lawmakers in the 117th Congress are now in the process of merging several existing marijuana bills. One of those bills is likely the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which passed the House last year with bipartisan support but was not able to advance in the Senate. The MORE Act would expunge marijuana records, use tax revenue from cannabis sales to revitalize communities impacted by the War on drugs, and provide funding towards efforts to expunge prior cannabis records. Sen. Schumer says the new bill will seek to do the following:
“Decriminalize, let’s the states do whatever they want. Number two, expungement of the records, it shouldn’t be that someone should carry this burden around his or her whole life when marijuana shouldn’t have been a criminal offense to begin with. Number three, the tax that will be made from legalization should go into the minority community, to help minority businesses… it was the minority community that suffered so we should put the money back into the minority community. I don’t want to see these big tobacco companies coming in and shoving everybody out.”
The burden of marijuana enforcement doesn't fall equally:
A 2018 NYT report shows Latinos were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at 5x the rate of white people.
Thousands of Americans shouldn't have their record marred for something most don't believe should be a crime. https://t.co/LSg0lpfH1i
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) December 12, 2020
Outside of reform, we can also expect cannabis banking legislation to pass, which is a big deal for the legitimacy of cannabis as a business. Right now banks won’t deal with cannabis companies because doing so would violate the Controlled Substances Act. Not only is there bipartisan support for removing cannabis from its status as a Schedule 1 drug, but Politico reports that the SAFE Banking Act, which would open up banks to the cannabis industry, also enjoys broad support from both parties in both chambers of Congress.
Legislation surrounding medical marijuana also enjoys broad support in both the Senate and the House, so expect more studies surrounding cannabis to come out of Biden’s first term.
Most promising, pro-cannabis Democrats in weed-legal states also now sit in multiple committee chairs, which will ensure that cannabis isn’t ignored like it was under McConnell’s Congress. The Hill reports that Sen. Cory Booker — a long-time advocate for legal marijuana and criminal justice reform — will likely use his role in the Senate Judiciary Committee to ensure reform is front and center. The incoming Senate Appropriations Chair will be Sen Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a weed legal state, and the Senate Finance Committee will be chaired by Ron Wyden of Oregon, also a longtime proponent of legalization who has introduced his own legislation in the past regarding post-prohibition regulatory structure. So while President Biden stops short of supporting federal legalization, a number of Democrats in power do, and that’s a good sign.