For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats will control Congress.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively, were declared winners of US Senate seats in the Georgia runoff elections, shifting control in the US Senate to Democrats.
When it comes to cannabis, this means that the single biggest hurdle for cannabis legislation in Congress—a Republican-controlled Senate, and, specifically, Kentucky Senator and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—has been lifted. While McConnell is perhaps the top supporter in Congress of hemp, defined as cannabis with .3% THC or less, he has called high-THC cannabis its “illicit cousin” and derided Democrats for championing cannabis legislation amid COVID-19.
On Wednesday morning, Senator Chuck Schumer, an outspoken supporter of cannabis legalization, announced that he would be majority leader.
The Senate aside, cannabis legislation has seen unprecedented traction in Congress in recent years. In December, in a historic vote, the US House passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act to end the federal criminalization of cannabis. But that bill, with Republicans in control of the Senate, would likely face the same fate of another cannabis bill that made history when it passed in the House in late 2019: the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow financial institutions to more freely work with cannabis businesses. In late 2019, that bill stalled in the Senate Banking Committee, due to Chairman Mike Crapo’s “significant concerns.”
President-elect Joe Biden has promised to decriminalize cannabis, but it is unclear whether he would support the MORE Act, which Vice President-elect Kamala Harris sponsored as a Senator. While Harris supports full cannabis legalization, Biden has not yet expressed such support. With Democrats in control of the Senate, Biden’s promise of federal cannabis decriminalization, as well as other cannabis legislation, would have a clearer path to passage than at any time in history.
Today, cannabis remains in Schedule I, the strictest categorization, of the federal Controlled Substances Act, where it has been for more than fifty years. Nonetheless, fifteen states and D.C. have legalized cannabis for adult use, and a majority of states have legalized cannabis for medical use.