The Democratic-led House voted to end the federal prohibition on marijuana last week. A pair of victories in Georgia would give Democrats control of the US Senate, which has blocked cannabis reform.
Two things became clear on Election Day and the days after: First, Americans don’t particularly like Donald Trump, as more than 80 million strong voted him out of office. Second: Americans love marijuana.
From the Democratic stronghold of New Jersey to the conservative bastion of South Dakota, marijuana won at the ballot box. Four states, also including Arizona and Montana, passed measures approving recreational cannabis use. Even ruby-red Mississippi passed a cannabis ballot measure approving marijuana for medical use. In total, 15 states have now legalized recreational weed and 35 allow it for medical reasons.
While legalization is popular among average Americans—68% of whom support legalizing weed, according to a recent Gallup poll—the drug remains criminalized at the federal level due mainly to opposition from the Republican-led Senate. That could change, though, and the future of federal marijuana laws could come down to voters in one state: Georgia.
Sort Fact From Fiction: Sign up for COURIER’s Newsletter
Voters in the peach state will head to the polls on Jan. 5 to vote in not one but two Senate runoff elections that will decide which party controls the US Senate, and with it, the chamber’s legislative agenda. If incumbent Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler win, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, an opponent of legalization, will remain in charge and in the position to stop any attempts by Democrats to decriminalize marijuana.
If Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock follow in President-elect Joe Biden’s footsteps and flip Georgia blue, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would control the chamber and add two pro-reform votes to his caucus. Ossoff has called for the legalization of cannabis, and Warnock has pushed for decriminalization.
A pair of victories in Georgia could allow Democrats to enact the most significant drug reform legislation in decades by ending the federal prohibition on cannabis.
While marijuana policy is unlikely to be the deciding factor in Georgia’s runoffs, a 2018 poll found that 55% of voters in the state-supported legalizing recreational marijuana. The cannabis industry, sensing the opportunity, is investing resources in the state. Bloomberg reported that the National Drug Policy Alliance had made donations to Warnock and Ossoff via its political action committee. Melissa Kuipers Blake, who co-chairs the cannabis practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and lobbies for the Cannabis Trade Federation, also told Bloomberg that The American Bankers Association has “made this a priority.”
Those efforts underscore a growing reality: there has never been more momentum for national marijuana reform.
The Democratic-led House voted to end the federal prohibition on marijuana for the first time last week, approving a bill to decriminalize and tax marijuana at the federal level and use those funds for restorative justice efforts that address racial disparities in enforcement of federal drug laws. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances and would expunge the records of those arrested and convicted for federal marijuana crimes. The act would also allow states to set their own rules on pot and levy a 5% sales tax on marijuana and use those funds to aid communities harmed by the war on drugs.
The bill was opposed by nearly every House Republican, even as almost half (48%) of GOP voters support legalization. The legislation now heads to the Senate, where it is unlikely to see a vote with McConnell in charge. Regardless, Democrats still touted the passage as a major moment in the push for criminal justice reform.
“This is a monumental step toward ending the failed and racist War on Drugs,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif), Co-Chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement. “For decades, discriminatory cannabis policies have perpetuated yet another form of systemic racism in America.”
In 2019, more than 545,000 people in the United States were arrested for marijuana-related crimes. Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for weed, despite using cannabis at nearly the same rate.
Lee hailed the vote as being “the result of tireless work from activists, advocates, and the will of the people.” Movements like Black Lives Matter and organizations like the ACLU and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have pushed aggressively for this sort of legislation, citing the negative impact on communities of color and racial disparities in enforcement.
Lee added that it’s critical that lawmakers not only decriminalize the drug but also “provide access to this booming industry to communities most devastated.”
The MORE Act would legitimize marijuana businesses, allowing them to work with banks. Currently, financial institutions risk federal prosecution if they issue loans, process credit card payments, or otherwise provide services to cannabis businesses.
The lack of access to capital has left some dispensary owners struggling. The bill would make cannabis businesses eligible for Small Business Administration loans and help ensure that people of color can participate in an industry that has thus far been dominated by white entrepreneurs. According to a new report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the legislation would also generate roughly $13.7 billion in net revenue for the US treasury over the next 10 years.
Although there is optimism about the momentum behind decriminalization efforts, even a Democratic sweep in Georgia would not guarantee such an outcome. The MORE Act would still face a difficult path to becoming law, given the Senate’s 60-vote threshold required to pass it. However, if Democrats controlled the agenda, they could at least hold a vote and negotiate with Republicans like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who have expressed openness to marijuana reform.
President-elect Biden, whose tough-on-crime record came under intense scrutiny during the primaries, has also expressed support for decriminalizing pot. His vice president, Sen. Kamala Harris, is the lead sponsor of the MORE Act’s Senate companion bill.
With that in mind, marijuana advocates believe the House vote is a key signal for what could come in 2021.
“By going on the record with this vote, House members have set the stage for a much-needed legislative showdown in 2021 when we will have the Biden administration in office — one that has publicly expressed an appetite for advancing the restorative justice remedies outlined in the MORE Act,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the pro-legalization nonprofit NORML said in a statement. “We are primed and ready for this legislative debate and we expect, ultimately, to win it.”
For that to happen, Ossoff and Warnock must win in Georgia.