Congress is warming to cannabis reform at an increasing rate.
In 2019, long-time cannabis journalist and activist Tom Angell dubbed the 116th Congress the most cannabis-friendly in U.S. history. The distinction is hard to argue.
Congressional lawmakers across the aisle are now showing their support on various bills. Despite the growing swell of support in both parties, many on The Hill stand opposed to reform of any kind.
Support For Cannabis Reform Reaches Across The Aisle
As tribalism swallows much of the American public and political discourse, a unifying topic is always a welcomed addition. It would be a stretch to say that about cannabis reform, but the issue is starting to establish itself as one.
The flurry of cannabis activity on Capitol Hill is spurred by a variety of lawmakers. However, it wasn’t long ago that the Congressional Cannabis Caucus was the only driver. The group, formed in 2017 by Reps. Dana Rohrbacher, Don Young, Earl Blumenauer, and Jared Polis came about in the wake of efforts to advance federal reform in 2016. Only two founding members remain in Congress, with Young still a proponent for reform, including the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting (STATES) Act.
However, Rep. Blumenauer is often regarded as one of the most long-standing and ardent supporters of reform. “It’s hard to think of a more consistent and influential congressional champion of marijuana reform than Rep. Blumenauer,” said Kyle Jaeger, associate editor for Marijuana Moment.
“For as long as I’ve been covering this issue, it’s the ‘architect’ of the blueprint to federal legalization who I most associate with the reform movement in Congress—always pressuring his colleagues, working committees, and crafting or co-sponsoring legislation that responds to the moment,” he said. Jaeger also commended Blumenauer for endorsing psychedelics reform early on.
Other lawmakers are pushing reform, but Blumenauer continues to lead the way, explained Natalie Fertig, a federal cannabis policy reporter for Politico. “He’s a member of Congress who made the comprehensive ‘roadmap’ for cannabis policy and is juggling all the cannabis pieces behind the scenes,” Fertig said.
Senator Jerry Nadler is another long-standing advocate for reform, including the introduction of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act alongside Sen. Kamala Harris in 2019. However, the lawmaker most mentioned behind Blumenauer was Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
Representing California’s 13th district, Lee is a supporter of cannabis in the Bay Area and beyond. Michael Correia, director of government relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), said Lee is a champion of social justice reform.
Lee is a common presence in the Bay Area, according to Correia. “There are a lot of cannabis operators in the area,” he said. “She knows all of them. They all know her. She totally understands the issue.”
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was mentioned several times as well. Evan Nison, a New Jersey-based advocate, lobbyist, and business owner, praised Booker’s efforts.
He said Booker won him over with cannabis stances before being elected Senator. “He is one of only a few candidates for office I worked with that ever went against their political advisor’s advice during a campaign to stand up for important issues such as abolishing the private prison system and decriminalizing cannabis.
Numerous other lawmakers received acknowledgment from industry sources. They include Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who have championed for small business loan access during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the Marijuana Justice Act, as part of their support.
Republicans are also onboard. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner is vocal on the issue and has developed a reputation for informing other Republicans about cannabis. Senator Rand Paul also has a strong relationship with cannabis industry groups, like the NCIA.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz was also mentioned. Gaetz, who has defended cannabis in front of President Trump and opposing GOP lawmakers, can polarize politics at times. In a previous interview, he was once dubbed a “fascist” by a D.C.-based industry source who asked to remain anonymous.
However, Fertig recounted seeing Gaetz’s interest in cannabis reform in action. “He cares about the bill,” said Fertig, who called Gaetz “no fluff” on the subject. “I watched him the entire Judiciary markup, and he was striding back and forth, whispering with lawmakers from both sides.”
The GOP Opposes Cannabis, But It Might Be Complicated
Support for cannabis reform is growing, leaving just a few lawmakers to push back. That said, opposition often comes from leadership, which may be voicing the party’s concerns rather than their own.
The most prominent name discussed was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky lawmaker has a steadfast reputation for opposing marijuana laws, including a May 2018 declaration to not support legislation.
While opposed to marijuana, NCIA’s Correia highlighted McConnell’s support of hemp and the 2018 Farm Bill. The contrast between the two leads Correia to think McConnell could be voicing the views of his party over his own.
In McConnell’s role as majority leader, Correia said: “If the Senate Republican Conference was overwhelmingly supportive of [reform efforts], he would be more open to it, but because they’re not, he’s just representing their issues.”
Another frequent anti-cannabis lightning rod is Idaho Senator Mike Crapo. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Crapo is often linked to blocking the passage of the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act due to his concerns and suggestions that many, including Cory Gardner, consider a nonstarter.
While possible that Crapo is hoping to block the passage of the act, Politico’s Fertig said, “Crapo has always told me he wants to move some form of the cannabis banking bill. And that’s despite being from a state with neither a medical nor an adult-use market.”
The two lawmakers in prominent positions often catch the flack. Still, Rep. Andy Harris and Senator Tom Cotton are considered the most anti-cannabis federal Congress members today.
“Andy Harris is probably the most vocal opponent in the House on this issue,” said NCIA’s Correia, stating that Harris often uses his medical background to not support the issue in a select fashion. He highlighted Harris’ support of the Marijuana Research Act of 2019 as an example. “He tries to pretend that he wants some evidence,” said Correia, noting the research efforts can be intentionally stalled for years by lawmakers. In 2019, the Baltimore Sun called Harris “Public Enemy Number 1” for cannabis activists.
“If you were to ask me who would take on the mantle of the number one enemy of cannabis, I could see it being Tom Cotton,” said Correia. The steadfast opponent of reform is even reluctant to voice his feelings on the issue.
“Tom Cotton has said on the record that he supports the will of Arkansans, who voted to legalize medical marijuana,” said Fertig. “I don’t know much more about his position than that, though, because whenever I’ve tried to ask him a question about cannabis policy on Capitol Hill, he declines to discuss it.”
Cotton and Harris make up a class of Congressional leaders who still view cannabis reform negatively. That said, very few anti-cannabis lawmakers remain, as the prohibitionist viewpoint is voted out or ages into retirement or death. While some candidates, like Texas’ Pete Sessions, could win a spot in the 177th Congress, they will likely be facing an uphill battle against reform.
With both sides of the aisle coming on board, momentum appears to be in marijuana’s favor.