National Legalization in 2021?

gavel marijuana and the usa flag

by Joseph Arnold

The draft bill unveiled by Corey Booker and Chuck Schumer consisting of a wish list of progressive cannabis reforms; full legalization for adults over 21, prison reform, expunging past criminal records, and investing in communities most affected by cannabis prohibition. While public support is at an all-time high for legalization, the remaining months of 2021 most likely won’t deliver the will of the people.

The democrats may have the House, the Presidency, and the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, but there are a number of factors standing in the way of cannabis legalization. Until the Democrats can successfully navigate out of the pandemic and deliver another big piece of legislation, we don’t expect to see the additional steps needed to get a bill on the President’s desk.

What is Needed to Get Legislation Passed

Capitalizing on the majority is essential to the looming midterm elections and 2024 presidential campaign for the Biden administration and the Democrats. One would think that members left of the aisle in the Senate could agree that marijuana has been over-criminalized in the US for decades and federal reform is needed, but that’s not the case. Not all Democrats are on board with legalizing cannabis.

POLITICO reports that at least two Democratic senators are opposed to federal cannabis legalization. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said in an interview, “we’re in the middle of an opioid epidemic, and the research that I’ve seen suggests that that is a way that more people get into drugs.”

Senator Jon Tester of Montana shares a similar opinion. He believes that legalization would “cause more problems than it solves.”

On top of two, ‘no’s,’ Senator Joe Manchin is undecided but is coming from a place of opposition. In 2017 he was asked about legalizing cannabis federally during a town hall. The West Virginia senator responded, “I go to the treatment centers. I talk to the addicts. I always ask, “How did you get started?” Most told me they started out with recreational marijuana. Legalizing recreational marijuana is something I have not been able to accept or support.”

While there’s hope of changing the minds of center-left Democrats, getting ten Republicans on board will be difficult. Passing legislation with overwhelming public support like cannabis legalization would be a massive win for Joe Biden and a blow to a 2024 Republican nominee.

Cannabis isn’t a Priority in 2021

Democrats have a lot on their plates through 2021. Covid cases are on the rise thanks to stagnant vaccinations and the Delta variant. The eviction moratorium is ending with 15 million people at risk of losing their homes. In addition, Democrats are focused on getting the votes necessary on both sides of the aisle to pass their infrastructure bill.

We are in unprecedented times, and, understandably, cannabis isn’t their number one priority. However, the urgency to legalize is more significant than ever. Not only would cannabis help create jobs and economic opportunities for people most affected by the pandemic, but semi-synthetic cannabinoid sales are also on the rise. Corner stores and head shops have been flooded with Delta-8 THC products in states without adult-use marijuana programs in the past year. THC-O could be the next trend in the cannabinoid hemp market, and unlike D8, which only produces a mild THC high, THC-O is 3-4 times more potent than Delta-9.

Joe Biden Hasn’t Changed His Stance on Cannabis Legalization

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Joe Biden’s stance on legalizing marijuana federally when the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act was unveiled. She responded, “nothing has changed. There’s no new endorsements of legislation to report today.”

Joe Biden’s position on cannabis is complicated. While he believes in the social justice aspects of cannabis reform, he is reluctant to support full legalization. In February 2021, he expressed his support for decriminalization but not full legalization for adults.

Still Much to Work Out

Even if the draft bill went through the revisions necessary to get all Democrats, ten Republicans, and Joe Biden to sign, dispensaries wouldn’t start opening in the south the following week. Moreover, legalizing is only the first step. Each state without recreational or medical marijuana would likely still have to pass an adult-use program outlining how they would regulate cannabis sales.

The biggest challenge is shifting the responsibility of regulating marijuana from the DEA to the FDA. Of course, illegal sales will always exist, but significant changes would need to occur across multiple government agencies to persecute illicit sales and regulate the legal market.

If the criminal justice reform initiatives of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act are passed, government officials will be tasked with an incredibly complex job of determining what prison sentences are ended and the extent to which drug charges are expunged. While the US does have the largest prison population on earth, the number of people in jail for possession is small. According to reporting from the Washington Post, over 99% of prisoners incarcerated on the federal level for drug charges are sentenced for trafficking. Prison reform is a critical part of cannabis legalization; however, the process is far from simple.

Looking Strong for 2022

Federal cannabis legalization in the United States will happen; it’s just a matter of when. The public, most Democrats, a growing number of Republican officials, and even conservative Supreme Court Justices favor reform. Where we disagree on is what it looks like. The progressive wish list proposed by Schumer isn’t going to gain universal support, but the draft bill is just a starting point. Republicans have their own version of a legalization bill introduced back in May. Their legislation consists of rescheduling marijuana, increasing research, and is absent of any social justice provisions. If cannabis reforms were to pass in 2022, we would likely see the legislation falling somewhere in the middle.