A House bill to legalize cannabis, wryly dubbed HR 420, isn't the first such bill in Congress — but with the recent change in House leadership, this time it may actually stand a chance of passing.
The latest bill to legalize cannabis at the federal level is the first to be introduced to the 116th Congress, which opened at the start of the year under new Democratic House leadership. The odds for its passage look better than for previous such efforts.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the bill Jan. 9 — numbered HR 420, in an inside joke for cannabis aficionados. Its full title is the "Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol Act," and it would remove cannabis from the controlled substances list altogether. This would separate cannabis from the "schedule" system established by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, and lay the groundwork for a legal industry. Responsibility for regulating cannabis would be switched from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
"While the bill number may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, the issue is very serious," Blumenauer told his home state's Willamette Week. "Our federal marijuana laws are outdated, out of touch and have negatively impacted countless lives. Congress cannot continue to be out of touch with a movement that a growing majority of Americans support. It's time to end this senseless prohibition."
New Hope Under New Leadership
On the same day that the bill was introduced, Blumenauer also announced new members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, of which he is a chair. The Caucus will now be co-chaired by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Don Young (R-AK). Two of the founding co-chairs have since departed Congress — Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) lost his re-election bid in November, while Jared Polis (D-CO) was elected governor of Colorado.
Legalization efforts have been held up before by the Republican congressional leadership. The 115th Congress' GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is actually the one who shepherded through the federal Farm Bill passed at the end of 2018, which legalizes industrial hemp and hemp-derived CBD. But he was always intransigent on drawing a sharp line between industrial hemp and marijuana. "It is a different plant," he told reporters last year when the Farm Bill was pending. "It has an illicit cousin which I choose not to embrace."
On the House side, the Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has been replaced California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who has by no means been a leader on the cannabis question, but may yet represent progress. According to Marijuana Moment, Pelosi has "cosponsored a number of marijuana bills in the 1990s and early 2000s — including several to protect states that legalized medical cannabis from federal interference — but she hasn't signed her name onto a single piece of standalone marijuana legislation over the past 17 years."
As the Daily Beast notes, when asked about cannabis legalization following her election as House majority leader last month, she responded somewhat equivocally: "I've supported these initiatives in my home state of California, so we'll see what's possible." She did publicly support California's 2016 legalization initiative.
But despite Pelosi's apparent ambivalence, congressional legalization efforts have become more far-reaching over the past few years. Last year, Sen. Cory Booker (D – NJ) sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act, which would not only have removed cannabis from the controlled substances list but also contained measures to address the social injustices of prohibition. It would have withheld federal funds from states that disproportionately arrest or incarcerate low-income people or racial minorities for cannabis offenses, and required federal courts to expunge the records of those with prior convictions for use or possession.
The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, actually sponsored by then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) last year, would also have removed cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, and likewise included measures for expungement of prior convictions.
Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) last year introduced a less ambitious piece of legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act, or simply the STATES Act, to remove the threat of federal intervention and prosecution in states that have legalized. It would have created an exemption from the Controlled Substances Act without actually descheduling cannabis. A House companion bill was introduced by Blumenauer and Rep. David Joyce (R-OH).
In 2017, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, sponsored by Rep. Tom Garrett (R-VA), did seek to deschedule cannabis, reviving an effort first launched in the Senate by Vermont's independent Bernie Sanders in 2015.
Of course, any hopes for passage of this latest effort could be dashed either by intransigence in the Republican-controlled Senate or by a Trump veto. While Trump has talked out of both sides of his mouth on the cannabis question, he's tilted in a hardline direction as president, giving little reason for optimism. And a veto override would, of course, be a much tougher prospect. Nonetheless, HR 420 signals growing acceptance of the once-taboo notion of cannabis legalization, giving a sense that the long arc of history in inevitably bending toward justice.
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This article first appeared in Cannabis Now.
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