In the wake of a contentious midterm election and looking ahead to 2023, two major cannabis coalitions that touch on different parts of the political spectrum have come together to put forward a united front.
The Marijuana Justice Coalition, a group that aims to “advocate for federal marijuana reform through a racial and economic justice lens,” and the Cannabis Freedom Alliance, a coalition group that seeks to end the federal criminalization of cannabis and create a “free and open market,” met in a virtual Hill briefing on Thursday. Nearly 50 congressional staffers from both parties, and lobbyists, attended the advocacy briefing, titled “Pardon our Cynicism: More Action Needed on Marijuana Convictions.”
It was the first time that these two independent coalitions interacted in a “joint fashion,” said Justin Strekal, of Better Organizing to Win Legalization, who moderated the discussion. The briefing centered around areas of agreement, from expungements and resentencing to respecting immigrants similarly to citizens when it comes to cannabis charges.
Strekal called the briefing a “first step.”
The goal, speakers said, is to come to a “cross-ideological consensus on criminal and civil code reforms that Congress should address in any comprehensive cannabis reform proposals.”
The briefing signals a shift in strategy in tandem with both a shifting political landscape and a shifting cannabis landscape in Congress. In the past year, two of the most comprehensive proposals from either party to legalize and regulate cannabis have emerged: there’s the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, introduced by Senators Chuck Schumer, Ron Wyden, and Cory Booker, all Democrats, and, on the other side of the aisle, there’s South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace’s States Reform Act.
The briefing also comes weeks after President Joe Biden announced that he would pardon federal cannabis possession charges, and initiated a review of how the federal government classifies cannabis. It also came days after voters in five states saw adult use legalization on their ballots on Election Day. Legalization passed in two of the states, Maryland and Missouri.
Speakers included: Maritza Perez of the Drug Policy Alliance, Jeremiah Mosteller of Americans for Prosperity, Aamra Ahmad of the American Civil Liberties Union, Weldon Angelos of Mission Green, Nithya Nathan-Pineau of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Jillian Snider of the R Street Institute, and Strekal.
“After the election, it’s very clear that we’re going to have to work together around areas where there might be consensus,” Perez told Cannabis Wire. While final results of the election are still playing out, it appears that the House will be controlled by Republicans, while the Senate could remain controlled by Democrats by a slim margin.
To say that the path is steep and winding for any cannabis bill to be passed in Congress is an understatement. But unity will be a necessary first step, especially with a filibuster that means that a 60-vote supermajority is required to pass a bill in the Senate. Strekal told Cannabis Wire that he believes the paths for reform are there.
“It’s my hope that comprehensive cannabis reform that simultaneously addresses past harm under criminalization and is thoughtful in encouraging small and minority owned businesses moving forward becomes a nonpartisan issue,” Strekal said, adding that it wasn’t until Mace introduced the States Reform Act last November, that “there was an actual pathway for moving moving down that road.”
Strekal added that he also hopes Mace and “others in the Republican caucus will be able to move their fellow Republicans toward a bill like the SRA” because “Congressional Democrats are not going to be supportive of a marijuana bill that does not address those past harms and be thoughtful moving forward.”
Mosteller said that Americans for Prosperity supports, in addition to criminal justice reforms, a competitive market where “no segment of that market can lock out new entrepreneurs,” he told Cannabis Wire.
“Both parties have to work together, still, to achieve anything. And of course, the reality is Biden is still in the White House. So bipartisan is going to be a requirement for anything, but specifically when it comes to cannabis policy,” Mosteller said.
Mosteller said that one of the aspects of the conversation that he found most “encouraging” was the diversity of the voices in the room, from the ACLU and DPA to the R Street Institute and Americans for Prosperity.
The event, Mosteller said, is a “signal to those on the Hill that these are the areas that the serious conversation should be happening, and these are the areas that we can move forward together to actually make some progress. ”
This June, Americans for Prosperity joined the Cannabis Freedom Alliance to meet with 30 Republican members of Congress about the “need for federal cannabis reform,” as Cannabis Wire reported at the time.
One question – or conversation topic – that is swirling around Washington D.C. is whether the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act will be able to navigate the maze that is Congress during a lame duck period.
“It’s not exactly clear, at least from our conversations, what the path to success for that legislation would be. We believe that SAFE Banking is good policy, but ultimately, at the end of the day, our focus at Americans for Prosperity is on descheduling cannabis at the federal level and allowing states to move forward with their preferred policies,” Mosteller said.
Perez told Cannabis Wire that she was particularly encouraged about the parts of the conversation around immigration and how advocates and policymakers can be more inclusive of noncitizens. It can be a “hostile issue” for some Republicans, she said. But, the conversation on Thursday was so productive, she said, in part because “we incorporated immigration seamlessly into the conversation around criminal justice.”
“It’s just really exciting that there is consensus among our groups when it comes to really important criminal justice reform, including expungement, including relief for people that goes beyond just simple possession cases,” Perez said. “And the fact that the Cannabis Freedom Alliance is right there with us on that is just really encouraging to me because they do carry weight with more conservative leaning people, and the fact that there is consensus on that is a big deal.”