Marijuana reform faces ‘more challenging’ environment in Congress under GOP

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Rep. Nancy Mace, of South Carolina, is on U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s good side.

On the surface, the Republican congresswoman‘s loyalty should be good news for marijuana legalization’s prospects on Capitol Hill.

Mace is a leading conservative voice for marijuana reform.

And McCarthy, a California Republican, won the gavel after a protracted leadership fight, relying on steady support from moderates such as Mace to survive a revolt led by the far-right House Freedom Caucus.

But as for the marijuana industry’s hopes for significant reform in the 118th Congress, Mace offers only a cold, hard reality.

“It’s more challenging. It’s certainly more challenging under Republican rule,” she said.

Marijuana will struggle for attention in the current Congress despite promising signs demonstrating the issue’s continued success.

Although marijuana legalization has spread to red states including Missouri, where adult-use sales began last week, and a majority of Americans profess support in polling for legalization, lawmakers, lobbyists and other interested observers interviewed for this story suggest that modest reform – let alone major, revolutionary change such as federal legalization – remains years away.

“Nobody is expecting to get a whole lot done, this year or next,” said one prominent cannabis lobbyist, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely.

“That’s the general opinion from staffers involved with cannabis on both sides of the aisle.”

Key obstacles

There’s a consensus that marijuana is not a concern for McCarthy, who represents a conservative part of California where legal commercial cannabis, including retail dispensaries, are banned.

“This is not a priority for him and never has been,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat and chair of the House Cannabis Caucus, told MJBizDaily.

There’s also a recognition that key committees where marijuana-related bills need to be heard to become law will instead become obstacles – such as the House Judiciary Committee, now chaired by Ohio Republican Jim Jordan.

Jordan has already indicated his priorities are investigations involving:

  • The notorious laptop belonging to President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
  • The U.S. intelligence community’s behavior.
  • Immigration at the southern U.S. border.

In early conversations with cannabis interests, Jordan’s team was “very candid,” another lobbyist said. “Anything else is not going to get a lot of committee time.”

On that same committee, friendly faces such as Ed Perlmutter, the retired Colorado Democrat who was the main driving force of the SAFE Banking Act in the House, have been replaced by Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy, to whom NORML assigned a D- rating.

Some observers note that marijuana is one topic where agreement can be found between moderates such as Mace and Freedom Caucus hardliners including Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who defied McCarthy until the end.

Others point out that Jordan could allow legislation through his committee without a full hearing.

But on the aggregate, in the House, “You’re down an Ed Perlmutter, and up a Chip Roy,” said one federal cannabis lobbyist speaking anonymously. “From cannabis’ perspective, that’s not as helpful.”

All this adds up to an agenda where marijuana will struggle to compete for committee time.

Future of States Reform Act

Mace indicated on Friday that she will reintroduce the States Reform Act, her vision of federal legalization that removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and leaves most of the remaining questions to be answered by state law.

Her bill will join a rescheduling proposal written by Rep. Greg Steube, a Florida Republican.

In addition, observers expect a reintroduced SAFE Banking Act, likely to be sponsored by Rep. Dave Joyce, an Ohio Republican, as well as the reappearance of other bills that failed to make much headway in the past Congress.

Early indications are that even SAFE Banking will encounter the same problems that thwarted progress in December.

Mace – like many others – pointed out that 100 Republicans in the House did vote in support of SAFE Banking, a much sought-desired measure that would protect financial institutions working with state-legal marijuana businesses from federal regulators.

But she also acknowledged the reality that Republican leadership has other priorities.

“There’s not as much support, which is a mistake,” Mace said. “SAFE Banking is the easiest bill to do. It’s the easiest bill to champion for.

“The holdup was in the Senate, with Senate Republicans,” she added. “It wasn’t the House.

“I plan on talking to our leadership and making the case. But, right now, it is the House that is very unpredictable.”

Adding to the hurdles facing marijuana reform: the looming 2024 presidential election.

In less than a year, both houses of Congress “will be consumed with the presidential election” and find little time for other business, Mace said.

“It’s basically an abbreviated term.”

The Senate battleground

In the Senate, Democrats now enjoy a slim 51-49 majority, with the extra seat occupied by Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman, a longstanding marijuana reform supporter.

That means Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrats’ priorities enjoy a freer hand in key committees.

And early indications are that Schumer will prioritize cannabis banking reform after efforts failed last session.

But it also means that any bill will need at least nine Republican votes as well as the entire Democratic caucus to defeat any filibuster under the chamber’s cloture rule.

Multiple observers told MJBizDaily that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remains steadfastly opposed to allowing a vote that would reveal a split in his caucus.

Schumer and McConnell’s offices did not respond to MJBizDaily requests for comment.

“The dynamics in the Senate mystify me,” Blumenauer said, offering a take shared by other Americans in and out of the Capital Beltway while nonetheless sounding an optimistic note.

The 117th Congress, he said, ended with more progress on marijuana than at any other time over the past 50 years, with President Biden:

As for SAFE’s demise, Blumenauer offered a familiar postmortem: The votes were there, if the showdown had only happened.

“I will just tell you they had legislation they could have brought to the floor,” he said. “One of the reasons why I wanted a vote (on SAFE Banking) was to show that we had more than 60 votes. There’s no question in my mind.

“But I’m not second-guessing them. We’ll continue to try and provide opportunities, but it is really important for advocates of all stripes to understand how important it is to get this SAFE Banking bill passed.”

He added that, “not only will it help largely minority dispensaries, it will give us a marker of where we are. I think it will break the floodgates, and we’ll be able to move for additional reform.”

Provided, of course, that the 118th Congress can find the time and inclination.

Chris Roberts can be reached at chris.roberts@mjbizdaily.com.