Democratic Senate leadership has vowed to legalize marijuana at the federal level in 2021. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer with Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden announced earlier this week that they will soon introduce legislation to end marijuana prohibition nationwide. This is precisely what cannabis advocates hoped would happen when the Democrats took control over the Senate and knocked Mitch McConnell down a notch.
Now all the Democrats have to do is hold a few hearings, shuffle some papers around and vote on a cannabis-related bill, and marijuana will be as good as legal in the eyes of the U.S. government, right? It’s more complicated than that.
One of the main problems in getting anything marijuana-oriented through Congress this year is the Democrats really don’t have the power to get it done. Sure, Senate Majority Leader Schumer has made some media appearances and discussed how marijuana reform is a priority for the Senate, but that doesn’t mean much. Any bill the Democrats put on the table might not have the votes required to pass. The Senate is evenly divided this session, with Vice President Kamala Harris being the tiebreaker. This means that Democrats will still need to work closely with Republicans to garner enough support for legal weed. But divisiveness will make that difficult.
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And then, there’s Mitch McConnell and his gang of cronies. Even though McConnell is no longer the majority leader, rest assured he can still cause problems for marijuana legalization. You might recall hearing a lot of noise recently about a filibuster. It’s a rule that allows Senators to engage in lengthy debates to stall or prevent legislation with majority support from passing. McConnell has fought like a dog to keep the Democrats from squashing the filibuster this year, and rightfully so. It’s the only way he can still control the Senate as minority leader. For now, the filibuster lives. And it will need to continue living if Democrats expect to get anything accomplished.
“I made clear that if Democrats ever attack the key Senate rules, it would drain the consent and comity out of the institution,” McConnell Tweeted last week. “A scorched-earth Senate would hardly be able to function.”
Although we do not understand the full extent of the marijuana legalization package that the Democratic-controlled Senate plans to introduce in the coming months, one thing is sure: Anything designed to legalize marijuana at the national level will require bipartisan support to go the distance.
This means getting McConnell and his followers on board in some manner. Even if the Democrats can get close to collecting the necessary votes to move marijuana legislation in the upper chamber, the filibuster could still sabotage the deal. McConnell, who has, for years, prevented marijuana-related bills from taking shape in the Senate, has probably already considered the filibuster his lifeline to stopping the legal cannabis industry from gaining ground.
Furthermore, just because Senate leadership introduces a marijuana legalization bill doesn’t mean it has the White House’s support. And it’s going to need it. President Biden hasn’t expressed any interest in full steam ahead legalization. He has, instead, given every indication that he would side with modest marijuana reforms intended to keep people out of jail for weed. Biden is all about looking at the research. He wants to see more scientific involvement on the cannabis scene before signing off on anything that allows a taxed and regulated marijuana market to take hold.
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It’s possible that Vice President Harris, a big supporter of ending marijuana prohibition, could influence Biden to accept broader reforms. But she has indicated that she wouldn’t pressure him on any issue if it came down to it. Unfortunately, getting a full steam marijuana legalization law on the books in 2021 is going to prove challenging.
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Unless the Democrats have devised some brilliant scheme to package it in much larger legislation, like a far-reaching criminal justice bill. Even then, the chances of it passing are slim. But let’s wait and see what they have up their sleeves. America might be pleasantly surprised.