Even though Democrats have regained control of the House of Representatives, cannabis proponents, both inside and outside of Congress, still see obstacles ahead for nationwide pot legalization — but it’s clear that things are looking up.
Last night, Republicans gained seats in the Senate, giving prohibitionist Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even more power. But at the same time, pro-marijuana ballot initiatives passed in Utah, Missouri and Michigan — all states President Trump won in 2016. And the president has signaled that he thinks states should decide their own marijuana policies, which could eventually pit McConnell against Trump.
So as a slew of more progressive Democrats won House races nationwide and tilted the pro-marijuana scales in Congress, proponents are in a more powerful negotiating position now than they were on Monday.
“We ended up with a much stronger pro-cannabis Congress, and we just added three more states to the list where voters have approved it,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) tells Rolling Stone. “We continue to get more public support in the polls, so I think we’re in great shape.”
Blumenauer, along with many Democrats, is elated that Colin Allred, a civil rights attorney who played in the NFL, ousted Republican Pete Sessions from his North Dallas district.
Sessions was one of Speaker Ryan’s most trusted generals. As Chair of the Rules Committee — the arcane committee that controls which bills go to debate or to a vote on the House floor — he was able to shut down any amendments to bills that Ryan didn’t like. And Ryan didn’t want any pot bills to hit the floor, so they didn’t. They were all quietly killed in that little-known committee.
Even though ahead of the election Pelosi refused to even say if she would bring marijuana legislation to the floor if she’s reelected by her peers to be Speaker of the House, getting rid of Sessions and putting a Democrat in charge of his committee alone is seen as a sea change by many marijuana reform advocates.
“All we need is to not have what happened with Republicans, where the Republican leadership stopped the process,” Blumenauer says. “If they would have just stood out of the way we could have moved this stuff forward, and we’ll now be able to do that. We will have a majority of people in the House who will overwhelmingly support this, and the leadership’s not going to stand in the way.”
With Pelosi’s refusal to guarantee a vote on marijuana bills, Blumenauer — who is a Pelosi ally — has already laid out his blueprint to go around her or any other Democratic leaders who get in the way of the issue that’s polling as high as 66 percent. That progressive wing of the party in the House only gained numbers yesterday, and marijuana advocates aren’t going to let up.
“The strategy in the House is going to be an all-of-the-above approach,” Justin Strekal, political director for marijuana advocacy group NORML, tells Rolling Stone. “It would be political malpractice for the Democratic Party to not advance comprehensive marijuana reform in the 116th Congress.”
NORML and other marijuana advocacy groups are looking to attach a slew of cannabis-related amendments to any bills they can, including spending bills, veterans legislation and bipartisan criminal justice reform proposals that maintained bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, even before Democrats recaptured the House.
“Under a Democratically led House it is time for Democrats, as a party, to unite behind their party platform of comprehensive marijuana reform or risk politically losing the issue forever,” Strekal says. “It’s that simple.”
With divided control of Congress coming in the New Year, and with marijuana seemingly set to sail through the House, the big question remains the Senate. But the nationwide polls showing resounding support for marijuana show advocates that the naysayers are on the wrong side of this debate.
“It’s going to be an issue that’s impossible to avoid,” Morgan Fox, spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association, tells Rolling Stone. “We’re increasing the number of states that want to get this dealt with and want protections for the programs they’re putting into place.”
That’s why even marijuana advocates think they can get President Trump to sign a bill that at the minimum would protect any state’s right to choose their own marijuana laws.
“It’s pretty clear that the drug war is on its way out,” Fox adds. “Smart politicians are looking for a way to move past that paradigm.”