Apr 13, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Advocates, Democrats plan to push major pot reform

Illustration of a cartoon joint on a path to the Capitol Building

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Advocates and lawmakers favoring marijuana reform are trying to capitalize on the social justice movement and COVID-19 economic rebound to legalize and normalize the use of pot.

Why it matters: The supporters are also trying to take advantage of polls showing broad public support — and get ahead of the reality Democrats could lose their control of Congress after the midterm elections next year.

The big picture: Cannabis is big business. U.S. sales hit a record $17.5 billion last year. Revenue for the NFL was $12 billion, by comparison.

  • Advocates note many dispensaries and legal marijuana distributors are run as small businesses and by minority owners.
  • They cite those facts while courting pro-business Republicans.
  • A Gallup poll in November also found 68% of Americans supported legalizing marijuana, a record high. There was majority support in every age group including 65+, and among about half of self-described Republicans, conservatives and weekly attendees of religious services.

Driving the news: The United States Cannabis Council (USCC) was launched in February to coordinate and represent about 50 organizations and businesses promoting policy and legislation.

  • Steven Hawkins, a social justice leader with roots in the NAACP and Amnesty International, is leading the effort. He is urging U.S. lawmakers to see the criminalization of marijuana users in the context of systemic racism and economic opportunity.
  • Hawkins says the government should treat marijuana as it did alcohol after Prohibition. He advocates de-scheduling and turning it over to states to handle how and where it's sold and envisions local governments creating wet and dry counties — similar to booze.
  • As more states legalize marijuana and open dispensaries, the group is also making an economic and small-business argument — especially to Republican lawmakers.

What we're watching: On the legislative front, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon will soon introduce comprehensive cannabis legislation to decriminalize marijuana nationally.

  • The three Democrats have long pushed for comprehensive reform of cannabis laws.
  • Now, with their party controlling both chambers of Congress and Schumer at the helm of the Senate, they're plotting major cannabis reform.

Yes, but: Any bill is going to need to receive a minimum of 10 Republican supporters to pass through the normal legislative process.

  • There's currently bipartisan support for legislation already introduced that would protect banks servicing legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, and advocacy groups think it's the most realistic shot at progress.
  • But Schumer doesn't think the banking bill is big enough, his aides tell Axios.
  • He's committed to pushing through the broader package, pointing to the widespread support for legalization following the presidential election in November.

Details: Hawkins tells Axios the Cannabis Council has met with roughly 90 lawmakers since its inception in February.

  • The members are heavily courting six Republican senators in states that have already legalized marijuana: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Steve Daines of Montana, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and John Thune and Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
  • They're also planning to target Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a key Republican who's taken a lead on criminal justice reform.
  • "Getting GOP support early on is key," Hawkins tells Axios. "If we can get 10 Republicans to vote for a pro-cannabis bill, I doubt we'd have a problem getting (President) Biden to sign it."

Between the lines: Biden's support for the cannabis community is mixed. He hasn't embraced full legalization but has backed medical-use legalization, as well as decriminalization for possession.

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