Key congressional races the marijuana industry should watch

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(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.)

The 2022 midterm elections are right around the corner, and the outcome could prove incredibly important to U.S. marijuana businesses.

If Republicans take control of at least one of the two chambers of Congress – as is largely expected to happen in the U.S. House of Representatives – that would dramatically affect the chances of lawmakers passing marijuana reforms, much less getting them signed into federal law.

Some stakeholders say the bigger concern, however, is the U.S. Senate, because Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he doesn’t support marijuana legalization – or even incremental federal changes.

 Elephants and donkeys

Democrats traditionally are more in favor of legalizing marijuana, and the Democrats’ hold on the upper chamber is as tenuous as they come, with a 50-50 split that requires Vice President Kamala Harris to break any ties.

As of press time, political forecasting website FiveThirtyEight indicated Democrats were “slightly favored” to retain control of the Senate.

“I’m really worried about the Senate,” said Justin Strekal, founder of the Better Organizing to Win Legalization Political Action Committee (BOWL PAC) and a former lobbyist for NORML.

“If you look at the upcoming (redistricting) map for 2024, if the Dems lose the Senate this year, it’s very, very unlikely they’ll be able to pick up any seats the following cycle.”

Strekal said such a development would almost certainly derail marijuana legalization or other major changes to federal cannabis laws until 2026, when Democrats would have a decent shot at retaking the Senate majority.

“If Republicans regain control of the Senate under Mitch McConnell, they will absolutely not move comprehensive marijuana reform,” Strekal predicted.

His opinion was echoed by others in Washington DC who have been advocating for marijuana legalization.

But Strekal and others said they don’t believe the door on reforms would shut in a divided Congress.

Rather, having new cannabis industry champions – including some fresh faces who are supportive of reform efforts – could significantly increase the chances that major legislation gets signed into law, several sources said.

Generational divide

The politics of marijuana have been changing, slowly but surely, from a partisan divide to a more generational one, with older members of Congress typically loathe to embrace the issue, while younger members of both parties wrap their arms around marijuana.

“The main trend is that we will continue overall to gain support in Congress as we see a younger generation … regardless of their political affiliation, come to Congress,” said Steve Hawkins, the former CEO of the U.S. Cannabis Council.

Hawkins pointed to South Carolina Republican Nancy Mace as a prime example, since Mace made headlines last year with the first GOP marijuana legalization bill in the House of Representatives, the States Reform Act.

“That means that which party is in control may matter less. There’s no foregone conclusion that, if the Republicans are in control, nothing will happen with respect to Congress,” Hawkins said.

“That simply isn’t true, and the trend points to openings that ultimately will help get us to the point where cannabis gets descheduled.”

Knowing this, the Nov. 8 general election could provide the tea leaves on which the political future of marijuana is written.

Click below to learn about these races to watch: