Congress Just Got More Marijuana Friendly

Marijuana ballot measures won big on Election Day, and so did candidates who support reforming cannabis policies.

While several federal marijuana law reform amendments were already approved during the current Congress with broad bipartisan votes, the composition of the new Congress that will be seated in January is likely to be even more supportive of cannabis issues.

For example, Republican Tom Garrett, who said in a recent debate that, “I’m advocating for the return to the state’s role as it relates to determining the appropriate marijuana policy,” was elected on Tuesday to replace the retiring Congressman Robert Hurt.

Since taking office in 2011, Hurt, also a Republican, has consistently voted against floor amendments to prevent the federal government from impeding implementation of state marijuana laws.

In Minnesota, Republican Jason Lewis, who has strongly criticized the war on drugs, was elected to replace retiring Congressman John Kline (R). Kline, like Hurt, has repeatedly voted against House proposals to respect state marijuana laws.

More broadly, as a result of California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada voting to end cannabis prohibition on Tuesday, there are now 68 more members of the House and eight members of the Senate who represent places where marijuana is legal for adults over 21.

And with Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota joining the list of states with comprehensive medical cannabis programs, there are 33 more House members and six senators representing patients who can use the drug legally.

That should give a boost to at least two key measures that marijuana law reform supporters have been pushing in recent years.

One, which prevents the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, has been approved by bipartisan votes and enacted into law for the past two years. The vote tally in support of that measure seems likely to grow significantly when it is considered again next year.

A second amendment, which would prevent the Justice Department and DEA from interfering in any state marijuana laws — including those allowing recreational use — came just nine votes shy of passing in the House last year.

Of course, not all of those legislators from the newly-legal states can be counted on to consistently back marijuana law reform measures, but it just became a lot harder for them not to. Opposing the measures effectively amounts to a legislator going on record and saying that it’s fine for the DEA to arrest their constituents who abide by state law.

“More states legalizing marijuana for medicinal and adult use does put pressure on Congress, and the votes are there to end federal prohibition of medical marijuana,” Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told

But, he said, “challenges in terms of committee chairs remain.”

Indeed, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who won reelection on Tuesday, has been a key roadblock to reform as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Despite a broad list of bipartisan cosponsors, Grassley has refused to grant a hearing or a vote for far-reaching medical marijuana legislation. But pressure is likely to increase in the next Congress.

Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access said that the House version of the bill should have a shot of moving next year.

“There may me be an opportunity to get a hearing for the successor to the CARERS Act in the House due to the retirement of Rep. Joe Pitts, who had blocked it in the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health,” he said.

Under a partisan analysis, while a growing number of Congressional Republicans have supported marijuana measures, Democrats have been much more likely to do so. And although Democrats failed to take control of either the House or Senate in Tuesday’s elections, they did gain seats in both chambers.

Plus, some of Congress’s most vocal opponents of marijuana law reform are now out of a job due the the election results.

Congressman John Mica (R-FL), who once held up a fake marijuana joint during a House hearing he chaired and has called cannabis a “gateway drug,” was defeated by political newcomer Stephanie Murphy.

And Congressman John Fleming, who once said, “The idea of medical marijuana is a joke,” tried to promote himself to the U.S. Senate. But he came in fifth in the race and now he’s out of Congress altogether. Fleming was one of a handful of members who consistently went to the House floor to argue against marijuana amendments. Now, his voice will be missing from the debate.

On the Senate side, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who has spoken out forcefully against measures to let military veterans access medical cannabis recommendations through the Department of Veterans affairs, was defeated by Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran herself who has consistently supported marijuana amendments in the House.

In Indiana, Congressman Todd Young, a Republican who supported marijuana amendments in the House, was elected to the Senate.

What Will The New President-Elect Do?

But what about the other elephant in the room? The oval shaped room.

Donald Trump has repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana laws if elected president. While there is significant concern that an ardent cannabis opponent like Chris Christie or Rudy Giuliani could be named attorney general, attempting to overturn broadly-supported state marijuana policies would be an enormous distraction from other agenda items the new president cares more about, one that he may be well-advised not to allow.

A growing majority of Americans supports legalizing marijuana, and in a number of states, cannabis measures got more votes than the president-elect or the winner of the U.S. Senate contest. Cracking down on state-legal marijuana businesses and consumers would create political problems that a Trump administration does not need.

In all, with this week’s election results marijuana emerged further into the forefront of mainstream American politics, and reformers seem well-positioned to protect existing victories and potentially gain new ones.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

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