Why 2019 Could Be Marijuana’s Biggest Year Yet
On Nov. 7, the day after Democrats seized control of the House with what would become a 40-seat swing, President Donald Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. That day, at his home in California, Smoke Wallin saw his phone blow up with congratulatory calls from friends and associates celebrating the political demise of the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
Sessions had spent good parts of the preceding two years looming over a booming industry that is caught between a tidal wave of popularity at the state level and an implacable wall of illegality in Washington.
Wallin, the president of Vertical, a cannabis company with a 1,500-acre ranch outside Santa Barbara and operations in four states, was not unmoved by Sessions’ departure, but he saw an even more welcome development in the election results.
“People kept saying that with Sessions no longer attorney general, a major obstacle was removed from the cannabis movement’s progress,” Wallin told POLITICO Magazine. “I had to remind them that Jeff Sessions was not really the major problem. He had been all bluster and no action.” Instead, Wallin was focused on the departure of another Sessions — the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee.
Republicans had taken such heavy losses on election night, it would have been easy to overlook Texas Congressman Pete Sessions’ defeat to Colin Allred, a former professional football player and Obama administration Housing and Urban Development attorney, but Wallin understood that it had been Rep. Sessions, not Attorney General Sessions, who had almost singlehandedly blocked marijuana reform in Congress by denying votes on marijuana-related amendments.
With Pete Sessions gone, and Democrats in charge, the backlog of small changes that marijuana advocates have been clamoring for since 2016 — clarification of banking rules, permission for veterans to talk to their VA doctors about medicinal marijuana, protections against federal interference for state-legal programs (medical and recreational) — is due to appear in upcoming appropriations bills.
Two hundred and ninety-six members of the House (68 percent) represent districts in the 33 states with at least medical marijuana, which means the votes are there to pass these amendments. In the words of Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the Oregon Democrat who is the dean of the Cannabis Caucus, “Cannabis reform is inevitable.”
Reform didn’t seem inevitable two years ago.
Even though legal marijuana has advanced across the country, many observers, at the dawn of 2017, feared Jeff Sessions’ rise to the top of the Department of Justice would mean much stricter enforcement of federal drug laws than had existed under President Barack Obama. True to form, Sessions repealed the Obama-era "Cole Memo," which had provided a buffer to keep the feds at bay while state-legal marijuana programs got their legs. But it had been Pete Sessions’ blockade of key legislation in Congress to protect state-legal marijuana programs that had a far greater stifling effect on the nascent industry that is expected to grow into a $25 billion market by 2025.
“Everybody talks about Jeff Sessions, but honestly the big Sessions was really Pete,” Wallin said.
But even while Pete Sessions stood fast in the Rules Committee, the pressure at the state level kept mounting as deep-red states such as West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Utah passed medical marijuana laws. Then in November, a slew of gubernatorial candidates campaigned on pro-marijuana platforms — and a dozen won: 11 Democrats — Gavin Newsom in California, Jared Polis in Colorado, J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, Andrew Cuomo in New York, Tim Walz in Minnesota, Ned Lamont in Connecticut, Janet Mills in Maine, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Steve Sisolak in Nevada, Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico and Kate Brown in Oregon — and one Republican: Phil Scott in Vermont.
In November, Michigan became the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana, but the number of states with such laws could double by year’s end. States like Illinois, whose new governor has made it known that he wants Illinois to beat Michigan to claim the title of the first Midwestern state to legalize marijuana sales, are looking to legalize pot through their legislatures rather than ballot boxes.
A legal marijuana map that included all regions of the country, rather than weighted to the mountain west, would place a new level of pressure on a Democratic-controlled House to get something done. And for the first time in several years, Congress seems ready for the challenge.
“This is the first Congress in history where, going into it, it seems that broad marijuana reforms are actually achievable,” said Tom Angell, an advocate-journalist who runs Marijuana Moment.
Members of Congress are lining up to introduce bills that never got to see the light of day when Republicans ran the show. Two bills have already been filed: a reintroduction of the CARERS Act by Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Don Young (R-Alaska), which would expand marijuana research, allow VA doctors to discuss pot with veteran patients and prevent the federal government from meddling with state-legal programs without removing marijuana from the schedules created by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970; and H.R. 420, the “Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol Act” by Blumenauer, which would remove marijuana from the list of most dangerous drugs, “de-scheduling it” in Congress-speak, and shift regulatory authority to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.
“For the past several Congresses, there have been dozens of pieces of marijuana legislation filed, but this is the first time where advocates can legitimately say that some of these bills can actually pass,” Angell said.
And, sure, Republicans remain in control of the Senate, so it seems unlikely that such bills would have much luck there. But the current Senate is practically the same body that just a month ago passed a criminal justice reform bill 87 to 12, and under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voted to legalize hemp — the non-psychoactive sister plant of marijuana — through the Farm Bill.
This level of disconnection between state and federal law cannot hold for much longer, and it might not have to. In the wake of the Farm Bill, the idea that Congress could remove marijuana from the list of scheduled drugs is now conceivable. After all,the plant is now legal; only the potency is in question.
Maybe this year, for the first time, Blumenauer’s bill doesn’t seem so crazy. Nothing would solidify 2019 as marijuana’s biggest year yet more than a rollback of that half-century-old designation.
“It would not be shocking to see the end of federal marijuana prohibition signed into law this year,” Angell told me. “This is the first time that actually seems achievable.”
Even before the election, Blumenauer proposed a blueprint for this Congress to legalize marijuana by the end of 2019.
“The House should pass a full de-scheduling bill,” the bow-tied, bike-pin-wearing Blumenauer said in October. With a 36-seat majority, passing a descheduling bill out of the House seems all but inevitable with Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) chairing the Judiciary Committee and Nancy Pelosi becoming the first pro-cannabis seaker of the House since Henry Clay, who grew hemp on his Kentucky plantation.
“Nancy Pelosi is out there as a champion on this issue,” Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance said.
Further emphasizing the rise of women in leadership on this issue, Blumenauer passed the torch of Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus to Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the first woman and person of color to join the group that leaned heavily white and male.
“For far too long, communities of color and women have been left out of the conversation on cannabis. I am committed to ensuring that marijuana reform goes hand-in-hand with criminal justice reform so we can repair some of the harm of the failed War on Drugs,” Lee said in the news release.
In the last Congress, she took a leadership role on this issue as the House sponsor of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which garnered 43 co-sponsors.
Her Republican co-chair, David Joyce, is newer to the issue. He’s the first member of the Cannabis Caucus from a state without full legalization. Ohio is a medical marijuana state, whose dispensaries have only just opened. “Joyce has come really far, really fast on marijuana policy,” Justin Strekal of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws told me.
First elected in 2012, Joyce had used his role as a member of the majority on the Appropriations Committee to protect pro-marijuana amendments. Then last summer, he co-sponsored the House version of the STATES Act, a bare-bones legislative fix to Pete Sessions’ blockade of appropriations amendments and Jeff Sessions’ repeal of the Cole Memo. It was introduced in the Senate by Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
These are the players to watch as marijuana legislation winds its way through the House this year. Although Republicans remain split on this issue, Democrats have all pretty much fallen in line. Some policies, like "Medicare for all," still seem to divide the Democrats’ liberal and moderate wings, but “This isn’t one of those issues,” Collins told me. “Marijuana legalization is one of these issues that I feel Democrats are pretty united on these days.”
Before the 2016 election, the only states with full legalization were in the Rocky Mountains or West. That’s about to change. In the Northeast, marijuana will soon be legal from Madawaska, Maine, south to Cape May, N.J., and from Buffalo, N.., east to Cape Cod, Mass.
Much of this momentum can be traced back to 2018 gubernatorial primary in New York, when Gov. Cuomo was forced to deal with the issue because of a primary challenge from actor Cynthia Nixon. Now, with Cuomo ready to legalize pot in New York, the state's smaller neighbors are jumping on the bandwagon with a fear of missing out. In the Midwest, Illinois and Michigan are vying to be the first state in the region to implement legal sales, with Minnesota poised to be third.
“There’s such tremendous momentum, state-by-state,” Wallin said. “How can you be for states’ rights without acknowledging that the states are making a statement?”
Among the statements being made by the states in the past year: Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington has begun pardoning citizens of his state with pot-related convictions as part of his “Marijuana Justice Initiative.” In California, former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last May that would allow hundreds of thousands of Californians to reduce or eliminate the marijuana crimes on their records. In Michigan, Gov. Whitmer, also a Democrat, pledged to free inmates convicted of marijuana crimes that were legalized on the same day she was elected and expunge their records.
And it’s not just Democrats. In Republican-controlled Florida, marijuana legalization is moving forward, even if by fits and starts. Last week, new Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he had asked the state Legislature to repeal its ban on smokable marijuana, which it had been in effect even after a 2016 constitutional amendment OKing medical marijuana passed with 71 percent of the vote. “I don’t want to continue fighting some of these old battles.” Former Gov. Rick Scott, who fought against smokable marijuana until his last day in office and is now Senator Scott, is likely a no vote if a marijuana bill ever makes it to the floor of the Senate.
In the end, the success of major legislation in Congress is all about the Senate, where marijuana advocates “still face an uphill battle,” Sen Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) told POLITICO Magazine.
Republicans gained two seats in November, but they lost Dean Heller, a reliable marijuana opponent, when Democrat Jacky Rosen, a fierce marijuana advocate, was elected in Nevada. Although the Republicans control the Senate with 53 seats, the more relevant number is 33. That’s the number of states that now have medical marijuana, which means 66 senators represent states where federal law has been repudiated in the state legislature or at the ballot box.
In 2020, 33 Senate seats will be up for grabs, 12 held by Democrats and 21 by Republicans. Of these, Republicans will defend nine seats in states with legal medical marijuana. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Steve Daines of Montana, Susan Collins of Maine, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Martha McSally of Arizona and Gardner in Colorado are all up for reelection.
“It’s likely that Gardner will be reintroducing the STATES Act with Senator [Elizabeth] Warren,” Strekal said.
Angell is also watching Gardner: “Even if Mitch McConnell isn’t personally on board with the changes that would be achieved by the STATES Act, it’s easy to envision a scenario where he, for electoral reasons, goes along with letting Cory Gardner bring that victory home to Colorado,” he said.
Far away from Washington, from his view in Santa Barbara, Wallin seemed more optimistic than Collins: McConnell "gets a lot of credit for the Farm Bill, and he’s in a pretty strong position, and he can choose if he wants to do this. But it’s guys like Cory Gardner, who [McConnell] wants to get reelected, that’s going to be the thing that drives it. You’ve got a risk of losing the Senate, and that’s the only thing that matters to Mitch at the end of the day.”