Cover Photo: Biden’s plan for cannabis doesn’t include federal legalization. Photo courtesy of Cannabis Health Insider.
Cannabis lovers celebrating 4/20 last Tuesday received unfortunate news from the White House regarding federal cannabis legalization. Press secretary Jen Psaki declined to answer whether President Biden would sign a bill to federally legalize weed. Additionally, she said Biden’s position on cannabis policy differs from many of his Democrat colleagues in Congress who favor legalization.
Just last month, the Biden administration also rattled advocates when White House officials fired five staffers over cannabis use. Now, many cannabis users are questioning whether the Biden administration is truly on board with cannabis reform after all.
Democrat Support for Legalization is on the Rise
New York, Virginia and New Mexico have all legalized recreational cannabis in 2021. That chalks up the total number of states with legal adult-use consumption to 18, along with the District of Columbia. Another 36 states have legalized medical cannabis, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In an effort to support the cannabis industry’s development, the House of Representatives passed the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act on April 19th, 2021. This legislation, which now awaits Senate approval, would allow banks to provide services to cannabis-related businesses where cannabis is legal. Roughly half of the House’s Republicans and almost all of the Democrats approved the bill.
The House passed similar legislation in 2019, but it was never approved by the Senate. Yet this time around, the legislation has received greater support as Democrats take control of the Senate, and politicians and organizations speak out.
More specifically the American Bankers Association (ABA) has lobbied for the bill. The ABA also wrote a letter urging Congress to resolve the conflict between local communities who encourage member banks to serve cannabis businesses, and federal laws that prohibit it.
Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, voiced support for comprehensive cannabis reform, and an end to the federal prohibition. On April 20th, he called for federal legalization by next April.
While Schumer’s position counters Biden — who wants to leave legalization up to individual states — Schumer and other Democrat Senators plan to introduce a federal legalization bill to the Senate floor soon, according to Marijuana Moment.
Butting Heads with Public Opinion
The White House press conference on April 20th displayed an overall disconnect between Biden and public opinion, which favors legalizing adult-use cannabis, according to the PEW Research Center.
More specifically, researchers found that 91% of U.S. adults want legalization. Within that, 60% favor legalizing recreational cannabis, while 31% support legalizing only medicinal cannabis. This overwhelming support for legalization drastically outweighs the 8% of adults who say it should remain illegal.
Reporters pressed the White House Press Secretary on Biden’s stance on issues ranging from cannabis banking reform to federal legalization.
Psaki could not say where Biden stands on the SAFE Banking Act. However, she did reaffirm the president’s position on federal cannabis prohibition.
“The President supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” Psaki said at the press conference. “He also supports legalizing medicinal marijuana.”
However, questions about whether Biden would veto legislation to federally legalize cannabis for adult-use remain unanswered.
As Biden solidifies his position on rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug, many cannabis reform advocates wonder about his commitment to decriminalization.
The president’s support for rescheduling backtracks efforts to remove the plant from the list of controlled substances altogether and categorize it alongside tobacco and alcohol which are not regulated under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), according to NORML.
This also means requests for clemency for federal cannabis convictions likely won’t be addressed until a rescheduling decision is made, said Psaki. She did not give a timeline, despite Biden’s support for automatically expunging prior non-violent cannabis-related offenses.
“[Biden] wants to decriminalize,” said Psaki in the press conference. “But again, he’ll look at the research of the positive and negative impacts [of adult-use legalization before fully supporting it].”
Furthermore, rescheduling cannabis continues the ongoing conflict between state and federal legalization laws. More specifically, states with legal adult-use cannabis are at a crossroads about how to enforce cannabis as a Schedule II substance. That’s because it would mandate that only pharmacies dispense it to patients with a written prescription, according to NORML.
“It is impractical at best and disingenuous at worst for the Biden campaign to claim that rescheduling cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule II – the same category as cocaine – would in any way address the existing inconsistencies between state and federal marijuana laws,” said NORML executive director Erik Altieri in a statement released by the organization.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, will reintroduce the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act in the House this session. The bill passed in the House in 2019, but was not approved in the GOP-controlled Senate. It would have removed cannabis from the CSA, according to the MORE Act of 2020.
It would also require officials to expunge past federal cannabis convictions, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association.
Furthermore, the House will introduce three more bills to allow cannabis businesses to apply for federal small business services like loans, disaster relief and training programs.
More specifically, the Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021 plans to expand access to micro-loans, disaster assistance and loan guaranty programs.
Likewise, the Ensuring Access to Counseling and Training for All Small Businesses Act plans to establish an Equitable Licensing Grant Program. The program would be funded from cannabis-tax revenue. It would support business training, and technical, management, and marketing assistance for cannabis business owners, according to the bill. It also incorporates provisions from the Homegrown Act. This bill would help small businesses navigate cannabis licensing and employment with a focus on communities most affected by cannabis prohibition, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dwight Evans, D-PA.
From representatives and senators, to governors, the cannabis legalization movement is building momentum, state by state. Biden’s commitment to cannabis reform may be iffy. But the Democratic controlled House and Senate are not passing up opportunities for reform.
It is still unclear if a federal legalization bill will hit the President’s desk. But Democrats have made it clear that Congress will act on cannabis legalization with or without Biden.