Even with the government shutdown that’s been ominously hovering over Washington these past three weeks, there’s still a fresh Congress in town. That means the nation’s 535 lawmakers are in the first stages of trying to get their favored pet issues on the radar of party leaders. That focused energy and flowery optimism that marks the start of any new Congress is different this year for marijuana proponents, because this time around they believe they can actually pass some sweeping cannabis reforms. At this time two years ago, while then-Speaker Paul Ryan was adamantly keeping any marijuana amendment from ever getting to the House floor, the rollout of most any marijuana bill was basically all symbolism.
Today’s a new day in the swamp, and supportive lawmakers are coming out of the gates swinging, signaling to marijuana supporters across the nation that this time around what was formerly just viewed as rhetoric now has a strong chance of becoming reality.
That’s why the founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), is excited — giddy, even — in this new year. He dropped the third purely marijuana-focused bill in the 116th Congress. Named the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, it would explicitly do what its title states.
The lofty proposal basically represents a wholesale reimagining of how marijuana is treated nationwide. It would put marijuana under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and not the Drug Enforcement Agency. It would also allow marijuana businesses to access the banking system and allow long delayed research on the plant to go forward without the constraints currently imposed on cannabis by the federal prohibition that currently views marijuana as the same as heroine. The legislation also snagged the slot of H.R. 420 – yeah, that 420 – a symbolic title that’s perfectly suited for this aspirational bill.
“We wanted to focus people’s attention so that, although it’s not probably the top priority for very many people — maybe not the top priority for anyone — it is in fact important to a wide range of people, and it’s something this Congress can do,” Blumenauer tells Rolling Stone.
While still just a dream now, Blumenauer contends the bill isn’t a gimmick. He says outright legalization is coming the near future, whether opponents admit it or not. That’s why the measure’s number is memorable, and its title — the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act — is almost too straightforward.
“It is important to sort of raise the profile a little bit early, and this is one of the things that’s pretty simple to comprehend,” Blumenauer continued. “And ultimately, I think it’s likely to be something, as we work our way through, that this is maybe one of the most likely outcomes. Is just to regulate it like alcohol.”
To reach that help reach that goal, Blumenauer gathered a clan of new leaders in his Cannabis Caucus. The team is historic because it now includes Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) — the first black woman to ever co-chair the caucus. It also still includes Rep. Don Young (R-AK) — a cagey old timer who is currently the longest serving member of the House and isn’t really known for marijuana policy, but is senior enough to do basically whatever he wants in the House — and then there’s Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH) — the only leader in the group who isn’t from a state where recreational marijuana is legal.
While some in the Cannabis Caucus support drastic overhauls of the nation’s marijuana laws, they’re also vowing to focus their attention on undoing the most tangible, truly mind-numbing areas of the nation’s drug policies.
The top of their list — and those with the best chances of gaining broad, bipartisan support — are bills to allow marijuana business owners to use the nation’s banking system instead of the all-cash businesses they’re forced to run now because the federal government still views marijuana as an illicit drug. The other measures that are widely seen as having the best chances of becoming law are proposals to expand federally condoned research on marijuana, and others to allow the nation’s many PTSD-scarred veterans to access weed without the repercussions or hurdles they currently face. The cannabis caucus, along with the growing ranks of pot-friendly lawmakers on the Hill, are already pushing national party leaders and the chairs of important committees with jurisdiction over the issue to make these a priority in the coming weeks and months.
“They’re all bipartisan, they’re all relatively straightforward and simple and they all speak to real problems,” Blumenauer contends.
The pressure campaign seems to be working, according to Blumenauer and others. Even though Pelosi’s been lukewarm on marijuana reform, she also has had to promise to give her members more input on legislation. And the thing is, most of her members are clamoring for marijuana reforms.
“Under the new leadership in Congress, I think, there’s an understanding that these bills will be coming to the floor for a vote,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) tells Rolling Stone.
Correa’s planning to introduce his own bipartisan marijuana bill aimed at veterans shortly. His proposal would force — not merely request or advise — the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct studies on how pot could help veterans. But Democrats are still trying to get a true sense of where the House will stand on marijuana.
“I think right now it’s a matter of testing the waters,” Correa continued. “Cannabis policy in this country is changing faster than most people can gauge.”
Some Republicans are on board too, but they’re worried because the top Democratic leaders in the House are all in their seventies and have dismissed marijuana policy as a second- or third-tier issue, even as others in those Democratic leadership ranks have dismissed it out of hand.
“Let’s hope the old Democrats in charge today are more open minded than the old Republicans recently tossed from power on cannabis reform,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told Rolling Stone.
Gaetz has been in talks with some Democrats on how to best address the glaring disparity between federal and local marijuana laws. “The key question is whether to attack cannabis reform piecemeal,” he says.
While Blumenauer’s new bill would mean a wholesale change that would reverse a huge portion of the war on drugs, proponents like Gaetz fear Democratic leaders will opt for that piecemeal approach that would merely nibble around the edges of the disparity between increasingly open state marijuana laws and the federal governments lingering prohibition on the plant.
Either way, proponents agree that the growing number of states that approved marijuana for either recreational or medicinal use in 2018 — which included blue-ish Michigan, red-as-hell Oklahoma and staunchly independent Vermont — shows voters nationwide have outpaced the federal government, once again.
The national conversation around marijuana will change this year too, in part because most of the handful of sitting Democrats who are now either running in 2020 or preparing their White House bids have endorsed decriminalizing marijuana in one form or another. But proponents also say that’s because voters on the ground in more than have the nation have already spoken and legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational use in their states. It seems it’s only a matter of time now for Washington to catch up to the states.
“We are going to win this. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told Rolling Stone. “The American people have already spoken in state after state; red state to blue state.”