The Democrats are officially in control of Congress, and they plan to legalize marijuana nationwide, one way or another, in 2021. It’s a tall order, considering that the political power isn’t quite deep enough on their end to just start calling the shots. Nevertheless, Democratic Senate leadership says it is dedicated to pushing major marijuana reform while the party remains in control.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, along with two other senators, recently announced that they would, in the coming months, “release a unified discussion draft on comprehensive [marijuana] reform to ensure restorative justice, protect public health and implement responsible taxes and regulations.” It’ll be one of their top priorities in the new session.
No matter what Senate Democrats try to achieve this year, nationwide marijuana legalization won’t be an easy task. The upper chamber is evenly split, with Vice President Kamala Harris being the tie-breaking vote. However, it has become painfully evident over the past month that bipartisan support is absolutely necessary for federal marijuana legalization to go the distance. Therefore, Democrats will have to err on the side of caution this session to ensure they don’t upset the Republicans. Doing so could cost them any chance at passing even the smallest pot reform.
The Senate recently struck a power-sharing agreement. One of the primary concerns for both parties has been the fate of the filibuster. This old rule requires a 60 vote supermajority on controversial issues. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t want it to die and had all but refused to negotiate with Democrats until they agreed to keep it in play.
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McConnell later said that he would deal with Schumer on the agreement after learning that Democrats didn’t have the votes to erase the filibuster independently. Senate Majority Leader Schumer has basically entered into a gentlemen’s agreement with McConnell, promising not to touch the filibuster. Yet, since nothing was put in writing, its future is nothing short of a political wild card.
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Right now, the parties are at odds over President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. Democrats approved the package last week in the Senate without any Republican votes. It was a move that ticked off Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who indicated that tension was high in the Senate right out of the gate. Talking about how “unity” is a hot discussion on Capitol Hill, McConnell said, “White House staff and congressional Democrats are working from the opposite playbook.”
McConnell and the gang couldn’t object to Biden’s relief bill since it was passed in a budget reconciliation — a process that allows the Senate to approve tax and spending legislation through a simple majority vote. These types of legislative moves are filibuster proof. The only problem is not everything on the Democratic agenda can be done this way, including federal marijuana legalization.
The only way Democrats could pass a marijuana legalization bill through Congress this year without having to get really creative would be to go back on their word and kill the filibuster. That is, if they can get the votes to do it. But it would take the support of every Democratic member to make it happen.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the Democrats find a way to eradicate the filibuster and start passing bills on marijuana legalization and everything else that President Biden wants to accomplish. According to McConnell, any such move against the filibuster would create a “scorched earth Senate.” If the filibuster gets used against Republicans, it could lead to a situation where any marijuana reform bills passed under Democratic control would just end up tossed off the books once the Republicans take back the power.
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“When Republicans next control the government, we’d be able to repeal every bill that had just been rammed through,” McConnell told reporters. “But a few years later, Democrats would try to flip it all back. So instead of building stable consensus, we’d be chaotically swapping party platforms.”
Sadly, marijuana legalization isn’t something that Democrats can do without support from across the aisle. Some Republicans will need to go all in on whatever measure they introduce to get it over the hump. But Congress’s divisiveness continues to be an obstacle in getting anything done, and that’s not about to change just because a seemingly more sensible party now has a slim majority.
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It’s definitely not going to be the best political environment for the longevity of marijuana reform if they destroy the filibuster. If Democrats get desperate and spit all over Republicans, just to go down in history as the party to end cannabis prohibition, the outcome, as McConnell suggested in the press, would only result in a temporary victory. It’s going to take a while before the parties can agree on how the future of the nation should take shape.
Unfortunately, this battle could put the concept of federal marijuana legalization in a state of disarray for many years to come.