Even as cannabis advocates and the industry celebrate the historic passage of a cannabis decriminalization bill through the House of Representatives, its champions in Congress are steeling themselves for a fight. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif. 13th District) hopes the American people will join in the push toward an equitable cannabis industry.
"We made a historic vote that something that has never happened before in terms of descheduling, and decriminalizing marijuana and cannabis. But we have a long way to go," said Lee, who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. "This is going to take all of us. That's how democracy works."
A longtime champion of cannabis, Lee co-authored the Marijuana Justice Act, a cannabis decriminalization bill that, like the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) Act to follow, sought expungement and reinvestment into communities harmed by cannabis criminalization. The MORE Act, which passed through the House on Dec. 4, ultimately built on several of the provisions of the Marijuana Justice Act.
"The racial justice provisions are so important to begin to address systemic racism and to address this war on drugs, in fact, to dismantle this war on drugs," Lee said.
Cannabis activists acknowledged its passage as a major step toward cannabis legalization but worried several amendments adopted in the eleventh hour before the MORE Act's passage undermined its equity provisions. Drug legalization nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance specifically called out language that would preclude people with certain marijuana convictions from participating fully in the cannabis industry.
"Today the House took the most powerful step forward to address that shameful legacy. But the MORE Act as passed is imperfect, and we will continue to demand more until our communities have the world they deserve," DPA's Maritza Perez said in a statement.
Lee, too, expressed disappointment in the last minute changes.
"I was very upset when, at the last minute, I learned that in the Ways and Means Committee there was a provision — an exclusion provision — as it relates to existing law around felony convictions. And we have a commitment from the chair of the Ways and Means Committee that as this bill moves forward, we are going to definitely fix that and address that," she said.
That's just one of many hurdles for the bill. Now that it has passed the House, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate. Lee insinuated that cannabis would have a better chance in the Senate if Democrats sweep the runoff elections in Georgia, which Lee said Dems are "determined to win."
"These elections are important in terms of so many of the policies that we have to move forward on in this country for the people. [Cannabis], among other issues, is going to be extremely important and dependent upon the elections in Georgia," she said.
Even if Democrats win both seats, they'll only secure an equal share of power in the Senate. Cowen analyst Jaret Seiberg wrote in a note that the bill is unlikely to drum up enough support in that environment without eliminating the Senate filibuster.
During the 2020 election, voters in five states, several traditionally red, approved new medical or adult-use programs. Those results have given many in the industry hope that sentiment could turn more favorable among lawmakers from states like Mississippi, South Dakota, and Montana, all of which approved legalization measures. But that could take time. Still, Lee is optimistic that, together with the 68 percent of Americans who favor cannabis legalization, the job can get done.
"I'm going to fight for it. The Cannabis Caucus, those who have really been leading on this for many, many years, we don't intend to drop the ball. But we have to have the public," she said. "And I'm so glad that five more states passed these laws in some form or another in this last election. But this means we're going to have to be advocates, lobbyists and engage in political action because now the more active course is in the Senate."