If anything was actually clear on election night, it was the American people’s will to legalize cannabis.
New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota and Arizona all legalized recreational marijuana — and both South Dakota and Mississippi legalized medical marijuana. Every one of those measures passed by historic margins, reflecting the recent Gallup poll that showed a record 68% of Americans support legalizing cannabis.
But still, the road to federal legalization remains unclear — even under a Biden presidency. If the Senate remains under Republican control, as is likely, the chances of passing any of the three federal legalization acts currently in Congress remain slim.
No reason to give up hope entirely, though. While cannabis has never been high on Joe Biden’s list of priorities, he has suggested in the past that he’d be open to medical legalization, moderate rescheduling and states setting their own laws.
Biden once even boasted to Breakfast Club host Charlamagne tha God, “I know a lot of weed smokers.”
Which is more than Trump’s ever had to say on the topic.
In September, the Senate announced that it would soon vote on a potential game-changer: the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. This bill would not only remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, but it would also expunge convictions of non-violent cannabis offenses and clear up a major obstacle for cannabis businesses across the U.S.: banking.
That act alone would directly improve the lives of tens of thousands of Americans currently in prison for non-violent cannabis offenses. It would also make life for business owners in the cannabis industry much easier.
Prior to Nov. 4, polls suggested that this bill would have a clear path to law, particularly considering it’s sponsored by then-Senator (now Vice President-elect) Kamala Harris, and cosponsored by seven other prominent senators including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand.
However, in the likelihood the Senate will remain under Republican control, the MORE Act’s chances of passing have been tossed to the wind. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proven to have little interest in passing meaningful legalization legislation and tends to block most bills sponsored and cosponsored by so many Democrats, anyway. That casts a dark shadow over the MORE Act’s chances of passing the Senate vote, scheduled for December.
Another cannabis-related act, known as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act would finally allow banks and financial institutions to accept money from cannabis businesses. Currently that is still technically illegal, as marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. Meaning many — if not most — cannabis businesses are, to this day, still dealing solely in large quantities of cash. The SAFE Banking Act would resolve that issue; cannabis businesses could bank their money just like any other legitimate enterprise.
Ironically, there is still a chance this bill could pass in the lame-duck period before Biden is inaugurated, simply because the SAFE Banking Act language was sewn into the COVID-19 relief package passed in May — which has yet to actually become law due to Senate inaction.
That’s a slim chance, though. When that package passed, McConnell mocked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for affixing the SAFE Banking Act to the relief bill.
“House Democrats’ huge new bill would cut taxes for blue-state millionaires, send government checks to illegal immigrants and — wait for it — mandate two separate taxpayer-funded studies of diversity in the cannabis industry,” he tweeted. “This is their effort at coronavirus relief?”
Similar to the other measures, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which has been the primary push to legalize cannabis for the last few years, is likely to hit a roadblock. This act would recognize states’ ability to legalize cannabis on their own, without federal intervention. It’s sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), and has over 60 cosponsors on both sides of the aisle — meaning it might actually have enough votes to pass in the Senate, which is why this is still considered the most hopeful path to federal legalization.
However, there are doubts about whether the STATES Act could pass through the Democratic-controlled House. This act has been widely criticized among black and Latino caucuses for not addressing the systemic racial and social inequalities of the cannabis industry. According to Forbes writer Kris Krane, it’s unlikely that Democratic representatives would risk angering such important caucuses by passing this act in its current form.
OK, so what about executive action? Couldn’t Biden simply sign an order when he gets into office, commanding we reschedule cannabis, expunge the masses and smash away the shackles of prohibition?
He could. But it’s unlikely Biden will. Cannabis legalization and reform have never been pillars of his politics. It would surprise most analysts, political experts and cannabis business owners if Biden took swift and decisive action to enforce the legalization of cannabis federally.
Still, there are some, like Wall Street business analyst Vivien Azer, who remain hopeful that progress could happen under a Biden presidency. It’s at least more likely under Biden, than it has been under Trump.
“It’s not in the first hundred days,” Azar, senior research analyst at Cowen and Company told Business Insider. “But we do think [legalization] is on the ‘year one’ agenda.”