Senate Power Shift and What It Means for the Prospects of Marijuana Policy Reform

Democrats are anticipated to gain majority control of the US Senate for the first time since 2010. The change in leadership paves the way for the potential approval of comprehensive marijuana law reform legislation in the 117th Congress.

NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said

“Reform advocates have established over the past two years that we possess the votes in the House of Representatives to remove the cannabis plant from its Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act to end the failed and cruel policy of federal prohibition and criminalization.” 

“Unfortunately, under the GOP Senate leadership, the MORE Act, the SAFE Banking Act, and many other important reform bills were dead on arrival. By contrast, Democratic leaders in the Upper Chamber — including Senators Schumer, Wyden, Booker, Merkley, Smith, Sanders and others — have already pledged publicly to debate and advance legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition via descheduling.”

“Senator Schumer’s ascension to Majority Leader will mark the first time in US history that the upper chamber is led by a Senator who is openly calling for cannabis legalization.”

“We look forward to working with soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Schumer and future Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden to advance legislation with haste,” Strekal concluded.

In Georgia, both Senators-elect are on record in support of ending federal marijuana prohibition. 

In July, Senator-elect Jon Ossoff told CNBC: “I won’t just push for decriminalization; I’ll push for nationwide legalization of cannabis. The prohibition of this substance is irrational. It’s hugely expensive. It has a terrible human toll. The fact that there are people doing time for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses while others are getting rich in the cannabis industry is a grave injustice. I’ll fight for outright cannabis legalization, an end to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses and expungement of records for nonviolent cannabis offenses.”

As a Pastor, Senator-elect Raphael Warnock discussed ending the drug war and repealing marijuana criminalization on multiple occasions. One such statement, which he called for “opening up the jails” was taken out of context by the defeated incumbent. The full quote is: “Marijuana is seen as an illegal substance. It’s a terrible irony and we feel it, that right now in America there are some folks who are becoming billionaires for selling the same stuff that’s got our children locked up all across America.

“Where is the justice? It’s not enough to decriminalize marijuana. Somebody’s gotta open up the jails and let our children go.”

Additional congressional context: 

On December 4th, 2020, members of the House of Representatives voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, HR 3884, which removes marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act — thereby eliminating the existing conflict between state and federal marijuana laws and providing states with the authority to establish their own cannabis laws free from undue federal interference.

In the previous session of Congress, the MORE Act was carried in the House by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and in the Senate by Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris. 

In the Senate, the MORE Act was referred to the Senate Finance Committee, which is now expected to be Chaired by Sen. Ron Wyden. Senator Wyden was the recipient of the 2019 NORML Rufus King Sr. award for Outstanding Public Servant, which he personally accepted at NORML’s national lobby day.

The MORE Act would make several other important changes to federal law in addition to ending marijuana criminalization. For example, it permits physicians affiliated with the Veterans Administration to make medical marijuana recommendations to qualifying veterans who reside in legal states and it incentivizes states to move ahead with expungement policies that will end the stigma and lost opportunities suffered by those with past, low-level cannabis convictions. If approved, the MORE Act also allows the Small Business Administration to support entrepreneurs and small businesses as they seek to gain a foothold in this emerging industry. 

The MORE Act became the first bill in US history to end federal marijuana prohibition to be approved in a chamber of Congress when it passed the House last December. 

Several other bills similar to the MORE Act were also introduced in the 116th Congress. They included: 

The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act introduced by Senator Chuck Schumer (NY)

The Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (OR)

The Marijuana Justice Act introduced by Senator Cory Booker (NJ)

The Substance Regulation and Safety Act introduced by Senator Tina Smith (MN)