With election season now over, it is time for congressional leaders to get back to the people’s business. One of the first orders of said business was to begin the latest round of cannabis legalization talks in the House. As this post was being written (mid-November, 2022), a panel of leaders from both parties were in the midst of hearings designed to find a path forward to decriminalization.
The House hasn’t been largely responsible for stalling pro-marijuana legislation for quite some time. That distinction lies with the Senate, where it is hard to get anything done if just one or two members of your party defect. That’s why, nearly two years into the Biden administration, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) still hasn’t made good on his promise to get a vote to the floor.
A new vote on cannabis legalization will most certainly pass the House early in 2023, even if the GOP takes a two- or three-seat majority. Whether or not that translates into a Senate victory remains to be seen. In the meantime, the House committee meeting at this very moment is discussing decriminalization from three angles:
1. Social Justice
The committee holding the hearings released a joint statement the day before the hearings began to officially establish an agenda for the discussion. The first topic on the agenda was addressing decriminalization for its social justice benefits.
Lawmakers will be discussing how decriminalization will benefit certain people groups, including minorities and individuals with past marijuana arrests or convictions. Whether you agree with it or not, any eventual decriminalization bill is going to include social justice language.
2. Criminal Justice and Financial Reform
Second on the committee’s agenda are criminal justice and financial reform. In terms of the former, lawmakers clearly want a bill that not only decriminalizes marijuana, but also expunges the records of those convicted of non-violent cannabis crimes.
On the financial reform front, Congress clearly wants to remove the barriers that currently prevent financial institutions from serving the cannabis industry on a large-scale. They want to make it easier for banks, credit unions, credit card companies, etc. to offer retail banking services to marijuana growers, processors, and retailers.
This particular topic is critically important, at least according to the people behind Utah Marijuana. As a cannabis-based business themselves, they say both recreational and medical cannabis suffer from the inability of businesses to obtain retail banking services.
3. Federal Regulatory Opportunities
The proverbial icing on the cake are opportunities for Washington to regulate cannabis production and distribution. Do not think lawmakers will agree to decriminalize without exercising some sort of control. If they cannot control legal marijuana, they will be in no rush decriminalize it.
Right now, the expectation is that a future decriminalization bill will include a regulatory framework that treats marijuana like alcohol. The federal government will maintain some measure of control over things like interstate commerce and transport, while allowing states limited freedom to determine how marijuana will be produced and distributed within their borders.
A federal decriminalization bill would force remaining prohibitionist states to get on board. It would also force more conservative states, like Utah, to rethink their medical-only programs. Ultimately, any effort to decriminalize virtually guarantees Washington gets what it wants first. What the states want will come second.
The next two-year term of Congress beginning in January 2023 will undoubtedly include multiple marijuana-related votes. Will 2023 be the year of decriminalization? It is possible. But as always, the Senate is the wild card. Only time will tell if the votes are there to get a bill across the finish line.