U.S. House could vote to lift nationwide pot prohibition this week — but McConnell could block effort even with weed-friendly Biden presidency looming

U.S. House could vote to lift nationwide pot prohibition this week — but McConnell could block effort even with weed-friendly Biden presidency looming

Proponents of medical marijuana hold signs outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004. Ending the years-long federal prohibition of cannabis is being debated in Congress this week. | Sun-Times file photo

“There are the votes to outright end marijuana prohibition in the Senate. The problem is that Mitch McConnell controls the floor,” one cannabis advocate said of a decriminalization bill under consideration in Washington.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are expected to cast a historic vote this week to end the nationwide prohibition on pot, though local leaders and cannabis advocates predict the potentially watershed piece of legislation will likely go up in smoke should it advance to the Republican-controlled Senate.

The bill, dubbed the MORE Act, would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and effectively “decriminalize” the drug across the country.

Still, the drug wouldn’t automatically become legal nationwide, but that would instead be left up to individual states. It would end the contradiction that currently exists between federal law and the growing number of states that have ended their prohibitions, including in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota.

“Nobody in America is talking about federal legislation that would force states to legalize marijuana,” said Justin Strekal, the policy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In addition to imposing a 5% federal tax on non-medicinal cannabis products, the MORE Act also includes social and criminal justice provisions that are strikingly similar to those embedded in Illinois’ cannabis legalization law, like creating a system to expunge pot-related records and a grant program to benefit those adversely impacted by the drug war. A floor debate is slated for Thursday, with a planned vote the following day.

Despite garnering 120 sponsors in the Democrat-controlled House — including Florida’s Matt Gaetz, the lone Republican — Strekal predicted that the measure would likely die in the Senate if it passes on Friday. The SAFE Banking Act, which would give pot businesses access to traditional banking services, has also languished there after being approved by the House last September.

The Mitch McConnell ‘problem’

Strekal specifically blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, claiming the Republican from Kentucky “loves seeing Americans getting arrested for marijuana.”

“I firmly believe there are the votes to outright end marijuana prohibition in the Senate,” said Strekal. “The problem is that Mitch McConnell controls the floor.”

McConnell’s office didn’t directly respond to questions on whether he would take up either piece of legislation in the Senate in the current session.

Rep. Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat who co-sponsored the MORE Act, acknowledged that the prospect of cannabis decriminalization likely hinges on two runoff elections in Georgia that will determine control of the Senate. But Rep. Bill Foster, another Illinois Democrat who sponsored the bill, said polling Georgia voters on cannabis decriminalization could prompt more immediate action.

“The fastest way to get this through Congress is if someone published a poll that said that Georgia strongly favored decriminalization,” Foster said. “And then Mitch McConnell would have it on the floor of the Senate so fast it’d make your head spin.”

While Foster agreed that Strekal’s outlook on the MORE Act “seems likely,” he also envisioned avenues for moving both pieces of pot-centric legislation before the current session of Congress comes to a close in early January.

Foster predicted that the MORE Act may get “incorporated in one of these big end of year deals,” noting that it could either be “a poison pill or something that Republicans will be happy to stop being yelled at about.” He added that Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Co, has “an infinite number of schemes” to push through the SAFE Banking Act, which he introduced.

Biden Administration will be pot friendly

Meanwhile, advocates are already looking forward to President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, which has pledged to be pot-friendly.

Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, sponsored a version of the MORE Act that was introduced in the Senate. And while campaigning, Biden put forth a boiled-down decriminalization plan that wouldn’t remove pot from the Controlled Substances Act.

“As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions,” according to a section on Biden’s campaign website. “And, he will support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, and reschedule cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”

Chris Lindsey, of the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that was instrumental in crafting Illinois’ legalization law, said there were “a lot of promising policy changes” put forth by a Biden-led task force. But despite that potential, Lindsey noted there are still “many unanswered questions.”

“He’s been the least progressive of all of his Democratic challengers in the primary and his own track record isn’t stellar,” Lindsey said, pointing to his sponsorship of the controversial 1994 crime bill. “So we have yet to see, I think, what policies he’s going to support.”

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