Most Senators Still Oppose Doing A Hugely Popular Thing: Legalizing Marijuana

The federal government is strikingly out of step with public opinion on cannabis.

WASHINGTON ― Even though a supermajority of Americans say marijuana should be legal for adults and the House has passed a bill to legalize it, major cannabis reform remains unlikely this year.

Why? Because Republicans and a few Democratic senators don’t want to do it.

“Marijuana? I haven’t even thought about marijuana. Jesus Christ, you smoking?” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) asked HuffPost on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, the House passed a bill that would legalize weed at the federal level, expunge cannabis-related criminal records and set the stage for a nationwide legal marijuana industry. But that bill is almost certainly dead on arrival in the Senate.

Instead, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have been trying to build consensus for a Senate version of cannabis reform.

The trio collaborated on a discussion draft last year that, like the House bill, would have legalized marijuana by removing it from the list of drugs banned under the Controlled Substances Act, which lists “marihuana” in the same category as heroin. The bill would also have expunged nonviolent federal criminal records and allowed marijuana businesses greater access to financial services.

Schumer has said he intends to introduce the new version of the bill sometime before the August recess. It’s an open question whether it’ll get a vote.

The problem for Schumer is the math. Democrats control 50 seats in the 100-member Senate, and they would need 60 votes to move a cannabis bill, meaning at least 10 Republicans would need to come aboard, and possibly more, since several Democratic senators seem like they’re not ready to legalize weed.

“I’m not where many people in my party are,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told HuffPost. The senator, whose state voted to legalize marijuana in 2020, expressed concern with implementation of a cannabis legalization on the national level.

“Are we set up to keep it out of the hands of young people? What’s the law going to be? Can anybody smoke it? There’s a lot of ifs and buts there,” Tester said.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), left, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) both appear to be skeptical of any marijuana legalization gaining traction in the Senate, even though a bill recently passed in the House.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), left, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) both appear to be skeptical of any marijuana legalization gaining traction in the Senate, even though a bill recently passed in the House.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), another key Democratic holdout, said she would take a look at the bill but generally isn’t supportive of legalizing marijuana.

Republicans are even less enthusiastic about cannabis reform. “I don’t know what their bill looks like, but I would think it’d be unlikely” that Republicans would support it, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a member of the Republican leadership team, told HuffPost. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said marijuana’s ill effects on children and other vulnerable populations need more study.

The illegality of marijuana at the federal level is strikingly out of step with popular opinion. A poll this month found that 69% of Americans favor full legalization, and that’s a typical survey finding. Support for legal weed has grown in recent years as most states have legalized the drug for medicinal use, with 18 states greenlighting cannabis for recreational use.

Schumer should be prepared to settle for lesser alternatives to legalization this year, said Morgan Fox, policy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“It’s my hope that Senate leadership will be open to incremental reforms between now and the end of the current Congress,” Fox said.

One smaller reform that’s on the table would disallow banking regulators from sanctioning banks that provide services to cannabis companies. Financial institutions have shunned state-legal cannabis industries because of their illegality under federal law, forcing firms to operate on a cash-only basis, making them easy targets for thieves.

The SAFE Banking Act, as the measure is known, is currently attached to the House version of a bill designed to boost U.S. semiconductor chip manufacturing. The House and Senate are set to reconcile differences between their respective chip bills; it’s not clear if the pot provision will make the cut.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she supports comprehensive cannabis reform but added that it’s urgent for the cannabis industry to get access to banks.

“It’s critically important that we get the SAFE Banking Act put in place because right now they’re all-cash businesses, putting them and their employees at risk every single day,” Murray said.

Booker has framed marijuana legislation as a matter of social justice in light of the racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests. But the New Jersey Democrat was clear-eyed about the prospect of advancing a major marijuana bill in the Senate this year.

“I’m going to do everything I can to push this forward but… I just want to be realistic that there’s a lot of competing priorities right now, so I’m not sure on the timing of this,” Booker said Tuesday, citing crises including the war in Ukraine.

Still, he said, the arguments that resonated most with his colleagues hinged on restorative justice and economic opportunity for states and communities that legalize marijuana.

As for Manchin, HuffPost told the senator on Tuesday that we had not, in fact, been smoking marijuana and asked if he supported such legalization.

“I’m all for medical,” he said. “I’m totally committed to medical marijuana. I’ve never heard of anyone ever overdosed on medical marijuana. And I have people overdosing right and left on opioids and everything else.”

Most states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, but using the drug remains a federal crime. Allowing adults to use marijuana for medicinal purposes at the federal level would require legalizing it first, which Manchin has not said he supports.

HuffPost also asked Manchin if he had ever tried marijuana himself.

“Never,” he said.

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