Path for Marijuana Policy Gets Clearer in Congress

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have gotten attention for his anti-marijuana views, but advocates say defeated Rep. Pete Sessions was the real roadblock to cannabis-friendly policies.

Republican Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas speaks to supporters after conceding his House race to Democratic challenger Colin Allred on Nov. 6 in Dallas.
AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter
Nov. 12, 2018, 8 p.m.

Cannabis advocates can see the path for federal policies on marijuana clearing as key opponents got smoked out of Washington last week.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was well known for his anti-marijuana stance, was ousted from his position on Wednesday. But for pot advocates, the midterms sparked an even bigger celebration as Rep. Pete Sessions, who is blamed for blocking several pieces of cannabis-related legislation, lost his bid for reelection in Texas.

Now that the House has flipped to a Democratic majority, advocates are hoping a proposal that allows states to develop their own approach to marijuana regulation could find momentum.

“The change from Republican to Democratic control is going to be really meaningful just in terms of who is most likely to chair relevant committees, whether it’s Judiciary or Energy and Commerce—especially the Rules Committee,” said John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. “These are committees that Republican leadership used as gatekeepers to block cannabis legislation, and I think under a [Nancy] Pelosi-run Democratic controlled House, those will certainly be lifted.”

While Jeff Sessions got attention for his anti-marijuana rhetoric, advocates and experts say he did not end up doing much on the issue. Instead, Pete Sessions proved much more effective in stymieing progress at the federal level, blocking proposals from being considered on the House floor as chair of the Rules Committee, they say.

“He was a significant roadblock to marijuana policy reform measures reaching the House floor, so that’s perhaps the most significant difference or at least the clearest-cut difference,” said Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project.

“A lot of the measures that he held up were appropriations amendments, and these are measures that would, for example, prohibit the Justice Department from using funds to interfere in state laws that regulate marijuana for adult use,” Tvert added.

The Texas Cannabis Industry Association urged Texans to vote against Sessions during this election cycle, which ended with his loss to Democrat Colin Allred. “As chairman of the House Rules Committee, since 2016 Pete has blocked 36 cannabis-reform bills including bipartisan legislation for banking, veterans, patient protections,” stated a video the group shared last month. “It’s time we the people unseat Pete.”

Hudak suggested that the congressman’s intense opposition to marijuana reform contributed to his defeat. “Pete Sessions was the No. 1 enemy to cannabis reform in the United States Congress,” he said. “Part of the reason he was defeated—he was in a vulnerable district, but part of it was marijuana advocacy organizations and advocates themselves donating funds to help defeat him. I think it is the first example of cannabis advocates really flexing their electoral muscles outside of ballot initiatives, but actually openly declaring war on a sitting member of Congress because of his opposition to and active blocking cannabis-related legislation.”

Sessions did not respond to a request for comment.

With Sessions removed, advocates and experts anticipate having some traction in the next Congress with legislation cosponsored by Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The bill would allow states to determine the best approach to marijuana, with a few restrictions in place, such as not allowing the sale of marijuana to people below the age of 21 except for medical purposes.

The proposal could possibly appeal to congressional members who are not proponents of marijuana legalization, said David Mangone, director of government affairs at Americans for Safe Access. “I think for those who are opponents of this issue, there’s a strong federalism component that underlies it that makes it a lot, I think, easier to swallow,” he said. “It basically says, ‘This is a state’s right to decide this policy and the federal government is going to take a hands-off approach.’”

Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said on a press call last week that he can see legislation allowing marijuana businesses access to banking services, among other measures, as something that could move forward in the Senate.

“When we start sending legislation to the Senate ... you may find that there are people over there that will willingly embrace it,” Blumenauer said, adding that there were growing marijuana markets in states that need access to the banking system, including the ability to hold bank accounts, use credit cards, and write checks. Right now, banks that provide these services to marijuana businesses could face federal prosecution.

Blumenauer sent House Democratic leaders a memo earlier this fall about actions that need to be taken by the Democratic majority on marijuana legalization. If full legalization cannot be achieved right away, resolving this banking issue for cannabis companies is another step lawmakers could take in the meantime.

“Although 31 states have legalized medical marijuana, because it is still a Schedule I drug federally the majority of traditional banking institutions refuse to work with cannabis-related businesses,” he wrote before Utah and Missouri legalized medical marijuana and Michigan legalized adult recreational use through ballot measures on Election Day. “These businesses are often forced to operate as cash only, while at the same time missing out on the traditional financial and lending opportunities available to other businesses. Not only is this bad for business, it is a public safety issue.”

The departure of Jeff Sessions from the Trump administration will not bring as much of an impact, although stocks for marijuana companies spiked the day of his resignation. Hudak, Mangone, and Tvert said that the former attorney general's anti-pot stance—and even his reversal of Obama-era guidance that had encouraged prosecutors not to go after state-allowed cannabis businesses—did not result in more enforcement action.

Marijuana policy on the federal level could offer an easy win to Congress and President Trump if they choose to move on the issue, Hudak said. Trump said in June he would “probably” support Gardner’s and Warren’s legislation.

“This is an easy one; this is not hard,” Hudak said. “These are easy wins that Pelosi can chalk up, that effectively every Democrat running for president in 2020 is going to have a pro-reform position on, that the Senate can say, ‘Hey, look, we can work with the House,’ and that the president can say, ‘Hey, I’m signing legislation, and I’m signing legislation on an issue that two-thirds of Americans agree on if it’s recreational, or 90 percent of Americans agree on if it’s medical.’”

What We're Following See More »
Trump Signs Border Deal
2 days ago

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Trump Declares National Emergency
2 days ago

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
2 days ago

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
2 days ago

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."

House Passes Funding Deal
3 days ago

"The House passed a massive border and budget bill that would avert a shutdown and keep the government funded through the end of September. The Senate passed the measure earlier Thursday. The bill provides $1.375 billion for fences, far short of the $5.7 billion President Trump had demanded to fund steel walls. But the president says he will sign the legislation, and instead seek to fund his border wall by declaring a national emergency."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.