When it came to cannabis reform in 2021, Congress did nothing.
Specifically, Congress did not send any cannabis-focused legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk. More specifically, while the House managed to pass cannabis legislation, it was legislation that had previously passed in the chamber. And, when given the chance, the Senate didn’t pass a thing.
Still, through a series of twists and turns as the year progressed, the cannabis conversation in Congress transformed, becoming more complex and, crucially, more serious. On the Hill in 2021, the number of cannabis-focused advocacy groups multiplied. Global giants in other industries turned their attention, and lobbying dollars, toward the issue too. Even Amazon started lobbying. And the GOP—at least pockets of the party—appears to be getting increasingly on board. The discussion has become louder, more complicated, and more consequential.
How did we get here? And where are we going?
Last year, for the first time in more than a decade, Democrats took control of Congress. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, a longtime supporter of cannabis legalization, became the Senate Majority Leader, dethroning Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a longtime legalization opponent. The timing of the power transfer at the start of 2021 seemed opportune for supporters of cannabis law reform: just prior, for the first time in history, a chamber of Congress (the House) had passed reform legislation—the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, to end the federal criminalization of cannabis, and the more limited Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow financial institutions to more freely work with cannabis businesses. But both bills were destined to stall in a Republican-led Senate.
When Schumer became Senate Majority Leader, a narrow window of opportunity opened for cannabis reform. By then, though, a new nuanced division had emerged, not between those who are simply for or against legalization, but among those who disagree on just how to legalize.
When the House took up the SAFE Banking Act in 2019, national groups—like the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union—argued that the bill was a half measure that would “undermine broader and more inclusive efforts to reform our country’s marijuana laws,” and that SAFE “would benefit the marijuana industry, not communities who have felt the brunt of prohibition.” They favored the more comprehensive MORE Act, which they argued would cover the bases that SAFE covered, but also, no pun intended, do more. Last April, SAFE passed, again, in the House. One month later, MORE was reintroduced, too, but by the end of 2021, it only cleared the House Judiciary Committee.
These arguments took center stage in July when Schumer, along with Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden, released a discussion draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act. The Act, like MORE, puts justice front-and-center, but it also includes a robust regulatory framework, making it the most comprehensive cannabis reform proposal crafted in Congress to date. During a press conference about the Act, Booker made clear he had little time for the SAFE Banking Act: “I will lay myself down to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill that’s going to allow all of these corporations to make a lot more money off of this, as opposed to focusing on the restorative justice aspect.”
By summer, though, new battle lines were being drawn within the pro-legalization movement. It was no longer just the any-reform-is-good-reform groups versus the no-reform-without-justice groups. More national cannabis advocacy groups formed in the first half of 2021 than in any preceding year. These included the US Cannabis Council (USCC); the Cannabis Freedom Alliance; the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR); and the Council for Federal Cannabis Regulation (CFCR). And while their overlapping names offer only small hints about their differing post-legalization priorities—“freedom” versus “regulation,” for example—their membership and funding reveal much more about how the national cannabis conversation has shifted.
Some of the clues are obvious. The founding membership of CPEAR, for example, includes Altria (Marlboro) and Constellation Brands (Corona beer, SVEDKA vodka). While both Altria and Constellation invested in cannabis companies before 2021, their decision to formally lobby on the issue lays out the role that the tobacco and alcohol industries will try to play in shaping federal cannabis regulation. (Cannabis Wire was the first news organization to report, in February, that Altria had begun to lobby on cannabis; CPEAR launched in March.)
CPEAR’s formation led to a rare moment of agreement among advocacy groups that have long stood on different poles of the legalization debate. “It is predictable, but reprehensible, that industries that have allowed the arbitrary distinction between licit and illicit drugs to stand for so long now want to end a form of prohibition in order to bolster their bottom line,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Winning the battle against corporate influence won’t be easy. These entities have limitless supplies of cash at their disposal. Nonetheless, we’re positive we can overcome them—just like we defeated the ideological prohibitionists of yesteryear,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “Guess @NORML gets it now,” tweeted Kevin Sabet, the founder of national anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, with a screenshot of NORML’s statement.
Enter the Republicans. By November, it was clear that the formation of another group, the Cannabis Freedom Alliance, marked yet another shift in the debates over cannabis. That month, Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina emerged on the national stage and released the GOP’s answer to Schumer/Booker/Wyden’s Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act: the States Reform Act. And she did so hand-in-hand with the Cannabis Freedom Alliance, which includes on its steering committee the David and Charles Koch group Americans for Prosperity. While the bill, like the Democrats’ proposal, would end the federal criminalization of cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act, it does so with a big-on-business-light-on-equity approach.
Simply put, these two bills, set to be formally introduced in 2022, propose very different versions of legal cannabis in America. If the Schumer/Booker/Wyden bill is the one that clears Congress in 2022, it will legalize with justice and equity at the forefront. If the Mace version instead makes it across the finish line, cannabis will be legalized in America with a business-first approach.
December, meanwhile, was deja vu: another House push on SAFE, another defeat in the Senate. At the start of the month, despite the shove, SAFE was yanked from the National Defense Authorization Act at the last minute. The House had included it as an amendment, but the Senate ultimately did not, and fingers very quickly pointed at Schumer. It is unclear whether disagreements about what should be prioritized in cannabis reform played a deciding role this time, but they certainly will in the months ahead. Not just as lawmakers gear up for another push on SAFE, but as Congress more seriously debates legalization.
Which seems inevitable. 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, the majority of Americans live in a state where cannabis has been legalized for medical or adult use. Advocacy groups of different stripes keep gearing up, and more political leaders are honing their arguments.
In December, during a press call, Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, the Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair, said that “the stage is set” for legalization in 2022.
That seems ambitious. But what a crowded stage it has become.