Cannabis advocates face off as redistricting changes congressional maps

Image of the floor at the U.S. House of Representatives

(This story, which originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of MJBizMagazine, is part of a series examining state ballot initiatives as well as key issues and races that voters will consider on Nov. 8.)

As cannabis executives watch the 2022 midterm elections, one factor that could affect races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives – and the likelihood of federal marijuana reform – is congressional redistricting.

Every 10 years, after the U.S. census, states are required to update their boundaries for voting districts.

Federal law requires that districts have roughly equal populations and that they don’t discriminate based on race and ethnicity.

Who is in charge of redistricting varies by state, but in most states, the responsibility belongs to the political party that controls its legislative chambers and governorships.

Unsurprisingly, the political parties that control redistricting efforts often try to gerrymander voting districts in their favor.

But there are some checks against that happening, such as the courts.

Winners and losers

After the 2020 census, states drew up their newest voter-district maps, taking into account population changes, which in some regions resulted in a gain or loss of congressional seats.

There are 435 seats in the House.

California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each lost congressional seats.

By contrast, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each gained one seat, while Texas added two.

The new maps are being used for the first time in this election cycle and have already had an impact in some key primaries involving marijuana-reform supporters.

The new maps are also expected to have an impact in November, when friends and foes of marijuana compete for seats in the House.

“As far as the House and what it could look like next Congress and what that means for marijuana, the most important vote any elected member of Congress can cast is their choice for leadership of the chamber,” said Justin Strekal, founder of the Better Organizing to Win Legalization Political Action Committee (BOWL PAC), which works for federal marijuana legalization.

This is because the House majority leader can expedite sending bills to the floor for a vote.

And right now, Strekal said, Democratic lawmakers are much more favorable to marijuana reform than Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

Given how close votes have been on marijuana issues in the House – in April, members voted 220-204 in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, for example – a handful of overturned House seats could make a difference.

It’s hard to say which party has benefited the most from redistricting. However, the popular political blog FiveThirtyEight noted: “The GOP is positioned for a net gain of three to four seats in 2022, just thanks to the new lines alone.”

While we won’t know the impact of redistricting until after the November election, marijuana advocates pointed to races in five states that could have an impact on legalization efforts:

Florida

Since 2016, Rep. Al Lawson, a Democrat who voted for the MORE Act and the SAFE Banking Act, represented north Florida’s 5th Congressional District.

But redistricting reconfigured that district.

Florida’s new district map puts Lawson’s hometown, Tallahassee, in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, which is currently represented by anti-marijuana Republican Neal Dunn. The National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML) gave Dunn a D-minus on its political scorecard.

Morgan Fox, NORML’s political director, said the race is noteworthy because a pro-reform incumbent who would have won comfortably in his former district is now facing a tough battle against a Republican incumbent staunchly opposed to marijuana reform.

Georgia

Redistricting could also remove a pro-marijuana vote in Georgia. There, Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux, both Democrats who supported the MORE Act, had represented two reliably Democratic districts.

But under the new voter maps, parts of their districts were consolidated, leaving McBath’s district redder than before and Bourdeaux’s bluer.

As a result, McBath ran against Bourdeaux in a primary and won. McBath’s former district, meanwhile, is expected to be won by Rich McCormick, a Republican whose position on marijuana legalization is unknown.

“This one sticks out because McBath’s old district is likely to flip red in November,” Fox said.

Michigan

In the state’s redrawn 3rd Congressional District, freshman Republican Peter Meijer, who co-sponsored Nancy Mace’s legalization bill known as the States Reform Act, lost his primary battle against John Gibbs, a candidate backed by former President Donald Trump and whose marijuana positions are unclear.

In November, Gibbs will take on Democrat Hillary Scholten, who lost to Meijer in 2020. The Michigan Cannabis Industry Association gave Scholten an A grade on its political scorecard.

The new district reportedly leans Democrat.

Also in Michigan, redistricting pitted two pro-marijuana Democrats in a primary battle where Rep. Haley Stevens defeated Rep. Andy Levin. The key difference between the two is that Levin co-sponsored the MORE Act, while Stevens did not, although she did vote for it.

Illinois and New York

Each of these states lost a House seat, and because of redistricting, pro-reform Democratic incumbents faced off against each other. That means Illinois and New York will likely have one fewer pro-reform candidate in their delegations.

In New York, Rep. Jerry Nadler defeated Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Both were co-sponsors of the MORE Act.

In Illinois, Rep. Marie Newman, a Democrat who co-sponsored the MORE Act, lost her primary battle in the state’s new 6th District to Rep. Sean Casten, who voted for the MORE Act but didn’t co-sponsor it.

“It is disappointing to lose co-sponsors to this redistricting,” Fox said.

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at omar.sacirbey@mjbizdaily.com.