Cannabis in '22: Is federal cannabis legalization on the horizon?

Cannabis in ’22: Is federal legalization on the horizon?

“The most encouraging thing,” says Chris Lindsey, “is how much bipartisan support we are seeing grow.”

During a recent interview, Lindsey told Profiles in Legalization that he’s optimistic about federal cannabis reform. After a momentous year, the Marijuana Policy Project’s (MPP) government relations chief thinks real change could arrive soon.

“We’ve had the Senate leadership come out with a legalization proposal. We’ve had Republicans come out with legalization proposals.” Lindsey said, when asked about 2021 policy wins. “The theme here is bipartisanship.”

The Senate didn’t introduce their bill in 2021, but a discussion draft received attention and feedback. As Democrats continued work on it, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) introduced her own bill in the House. It’s a partisan measure that would tax and regulate cannabis, but lacks equity measures demanded by progressives.

The MORE Act, favored by House Democrats, cleared the Judiciary Committee eight days later, eclipsing news of Mace’s bill. The comprehensive cannabis reform bill is a more likely companion for the Senate’s forthcoming legislation. It boasts 100 Democrat cosponsors and a past track record of success.

The coming midterm elections leave little time for cooperation before campaign season. Still, both major parties now back federal cannabis reform. Change is possible.

Profiles in Legalization spoke with Lindsey and policy heads from two other national organizations by phone recently. They provided their thoughts on how things look for next year.

“The House at this point has introduced a number of bills that addressed marijuana. The Senate really hasn’t. It’s really exciting because the Senate is actively thinking about marijuana legalization.”

Maritza Perez, Director of National Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance

The States Reform Act offers a Republican alternative

Mace introduced the States Reform Act on November 15. The SRA would decriminalize cannabis federally and treat it like alcohol, leaving regulation to the states. Three Republican colleagues joined in cosponsoring, but no House Democrats. Still, both major parties moving in the same direction on cannabis is encouraging to Lindsey.

Chris Lindsey, Director of Government Relations, Marijuana Policy Project

Mace’s bill isn’t likely to get a hearing with Democrats controlling the House. Though they favor reform, Senate Democrats have resisted measures without social justice considerations. House Democrats want comprehensive reform, as well.

The Senate’s opposition became clear when leadership removed SAFE Banking language from the annual defense bill this month. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), attached it to the House appropriations bill before that. The appropriations amendment was likewise removed in the senate version.

With senate leadership opposing piecemeal reform, a rift grew in the advocate community over which path to support. The debate broke into the open early this month with some favoring any reform and others holding out for restorative justice.

Maritza Perez told us that the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) couldn’t back cannabis banking as an amendment because “it really falls short of what we need.” 

Perez is DPA’s director of national affairs. She told us the advocacy group opposed cannabis banking without wider reform. Her focus is on repairing drug war harms, rather than problems in the nascent cannabis industry.

DPA instead threw its support behind the MORE Act, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) in May. Perez suggested that banking concerns be addressed in this type of comprehensive bill.

“Having the Senate Majority Leader behind legalization to de-schedule cannabis is probably the most encouraging development of 2021. Fifteen years ago, we couldn’t even dream of that.”

Erik Altieri, Executive Director of NORML

The MORE Act clears committee and awaits debate

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act is an ambitious bill. It would decriminalize cannabis and remove it as a Schedule I narcotic– a policy goal known as “de-scheduling.”

Maritza Perez, Director of National Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance

At the same time, the MORE Act provides resources for the legal cannabis industry and helps to facilitate the expungement of cannabis-related convictions. In this way, the de-scheduling would be somewhat retroactive, undoing harms of prohibition. Nadler’s Judiciary Committee voted to approve the MORE Act eight days after Mace introduced her bill.

Unlike the SRA and the forthcoming senate bill, the MORE Act boasts some history of legislative success. While the Senate’s MORE Act of 2019 never made it out of committee, the House’s version passed in the waning days of 2020.

Nadler introduced the latest version in the House on May 28.

House Democrats liked what they saw. Though only a single House Republican joined in cosponsoring the legislation, 100 Democrats signed on.. The support suggests that it could again pass the House in 2022.

DPA’s Perez saw this as reason for hope in the Senate.

“The House at this point has introduced a number of bills that addressed marijuana,” said Perez. “The Senate really hasn’t.”

Perez agreed with Lindsey on the Senate’s importance. She thinks it might be the start of real education on the issue. Perez says the Senate hasn’t yet heard from cannabis advocates and stakeholders. She thinks the attention and serious discussion of legal cannabis will benefit reform.

“It’s really exciting because the Senate is actively thinking about marijuana legalization.”

Hopes high for the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act

All three advocates cited the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act as a 2021 policy win. The CAO Act is the first serious cannabis legalization effort in the U.S. Senate. While the final bill wasn’t introduced in 2021, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) put forward a discussion draft and requested comments from the cannabis community.

Erik Altieri, Executive Director, NORML

A wide range of cannabis stakeholder groups submitted comments, both publicly and privately, before a September 1 deadline. NORML is among the groups supporting the legislation.

“It’s hard to say how things will go.” said Erik Altieri, the group’s head. “With next year being an election year, lawmakers will be spending more time on the campaign trail than the Capitol.”

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws that Altieri leads as executive director lives up to its name. They’ve been pushing for de-scheduling for decades. Altieri said the Senate’s majority throwing its political weight behind cannabis reform is a big change.

“Having the Senate Majority Leader behind legalization,” Altieri said, citing it as the year’s biggest policy win. “Fifteen years ago, we couldn’t even dream of that.”

Altieri, like the others, tempered his optimism with the reality that federal legalization faces long odds in 2022. Even if the CAO Act is introduced and taken up before the midterms, the support isn’t there yet. Bipartisanship becomes a dirty word during elections and neither party has enough votes on its own.

That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, though.

“I definitely think they have a chance of coming together and passing a compromise legalization bill,” said Altieri. “But they only have a short window to get it done.”

The future of cannabis reform lies with the Senate

Perez is encouraged by the CAO discussion draft and DPA supports it. She especially liked the fact that it took drug war victims into account.

“The public draft was really centered on repairing harms to communities across the country that have disproportionately borne the brunt of law enforcement.” said Perez.

While federal cannabis legalization in 2022 faces a tough road, the message of 2021 is one of hope. Individual states continue to pass laws and implement both medical and adult-use cannabis programs. The outgoing head of MPP isn’t the only advocate who thinks a tipping point is near.

It’s possible that what’s really needed is what has worked so well thus far; honest education about cannabis.

“If the Senate turns [the CAO Act] draft into a bill early next year there will be a lot of lobbying activity around it,” said Perez. “So the Senate will have to get educated and probably take a position.”

We can hope.