It’s been a busy year for federal cannabis legislation. Will all the activity lead to legalization – or even incremental progress on changing federal law?
Federal cannabis reform hasn’t passed into law, but it’s not for lack of trying. In 2021 alone, several high-profile cannabis bills have been proposed in both chambers of Congress, while others have been promised later this year.
Moving into the second half of 2021, let’s examine the most prominent federal cannabis bills, assess their current status, and with the help of industry experts, make some predictions about the future.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act
Introduced in the House by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) & other Democratic representatives
The current flagship legislation for comprehensive cannabis legalization, the MORE Act was first introduced in the summer of 2019. It passed a full floor vote in December 2020, making history as the first bill to explicitly legalize cannabis to pass in Congress.
Since the bill’s inception, however, momentum has been slowed by a lack of bipartisan support – particularly related to the bill’s strong social equity provisions, which would devote federal grants to help communities hurt most by the War on Drugs.
“In order to pass the Senate, you’re going to need to get 10 Republicans on board with a descheduling bill without alienating Democrats, and I think that can be pretty tricky,” said Morgan Fox, Director of Media Relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association in a phone interview. “Particularly since in the GOP, the main sticking point tends to be social equity.”
Last month, Rep. Nadler reintroduced the MORE Act, highlighting advancements in state-level cannabis reform in an accompanying statement: “Since I introduced the MORE Act last Congress, numerous states across the nation, including my home state of New York, have moved to legalize marijuana. Our federal laws must keep up with this pace,” said Nadler, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
The Common Sense Cannabis Reform for Veterans, Small Businesses, and Medical Professionals Act
Introduced in the House by Reps. David Joyce (R-OH) and Don Young (R-AK)
Perhaps recognizing the desire among their Republican party for simple legalization without any social justice provisions, two GOP representatives introduced a bill that would remove cannabis from the DEA’s Controlled Substances schedule, provide protection for cannabis-related financial services companies, and offer blanket protection for veterans to use medical cannabis in accordance with state laws.
Reps. Joyce and Young, who are members of the bipartisan Congressional Cannabis Caucus, may have introduced the bill as an opening for House Republicans to support plain legalization without attaching their vote to the kind of progressive reform measures included in other legislation.
“One of the reasons the Joyce bill was introduced in the House was to see which Republicans are completely against legalization and which ones are okay with a simple, straightforward bill that only deschedules and doesn’t include any social justice or restorative issues,” said Fox.
Untitled Comprehensive Cannabis Reform
Upcoming in Senate by Senators Cory Booker (D-NY), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
(Announced) February 2021
This piece of federal cannabis legislation is distinct from others in one important way: No one has seen it. From what the Senators have been saying about it for several months, the legislative package will focus on legalizing cannabis reform, while also striving to “right the wrongs of this failed war [on drugs] and end decades of harm inflicted on communities of color,” and “enact measures that will lift up people who were unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs.” Its promised social justice and equity measures have made it highly anticipated by the industry, but details are scant.
“Nobody to my knowledge outside of their offices has gotten a look at the actual language yet,” said Fox. “So far we’ve been hearing it’s going to be pretty heavy on restorative justice and social equity provisions...but again, we don’t know exactly what that looks like. So I think it’s going to be pretty important, once we see the details, to do a line-by-line with the MORE Act and see how they compare and contrast.”
Dasheeda Dawson, Cannabis Program Manager for the City of Portland and Chair of Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition (CRCC), said it’s fair to expect the Senate legalization package to go even further than the MORE Act when it comes to restorative justice, given the history of the Senators involved.
“We expect MORE will be the baseline for the Schumer, Booker & Wyden efforts in the Senate,” said Dawson in an email to Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary. “Much of the foundation of the MORE Act was built on Booker's Marijuana Justice Act of 2017. If anything, because of the additional time and New York's landmark legalization bill, I believe the Senate bill will be a slight step above the MORE Act as it pertains to restorative justice and equity.”
The Secure and Fair Enforcement in (SAFE) Banking Act
Introduced in the House by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO)
March 2021 – passed April 2021
The SAFE Banking Act is a more incremental reform step that would allow cannabis businesses access to the same kind of banking products available for other businesses, including credit and insurance. It also provides legal protection for ancillary businesses that provide service to the cannabis industry, such as contractors and packaging companies.
The bill has now passed a full floor vote in the House twice: once in September 2019, and once this past April, after its most recent introduction by Rep. Perlmutter. Now that even more Americans support full cannabis legalization, some in the industry hope the time is finally right to at least allow cannabis companies access to relatively basic business tools.
“SAFE Banking enjoys the support of the banking industry and many Republicans, so it could be seen as a fallback option should comprehensive legalization ultimately fail,” said Kris Krane, Founder of 4Front Ventures and President of Mission Dispensaries.
But others believe that incremental progress could actually represent a step backwards for cannabis equity.
“On surface the SAFE Banking Act is a helpful band-aid for those already privileged to be participants in this developing industry,” said Dawson. “Passage of SAFE would be an incremental step that actually would further the gap in equity for this industry, even if it temporarily relieves small cannabis business[es] from the oppression of cash-only business management. There's also risk that it will encourage much bigger industry players, like Amazon, to begin their money moves to position themselves for future domination.”
In an early June blog post, Amazon announced it would no longer screen prospective hires for cannabis and its policy team would be “actively supporting” the MORE Act.
For now, the SAFE Banking Act awaits a hearing in the Senate after passing a floor vote in the House – just like the MORE Act.
The Hemp Access and Consumer Safety Act
Introduced in the Senate by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Like the SAFE Banking Act, the Hemp Access and Consumer Safety Act is a more incremental cannabis bill that would confirm the legal status of cannabidiol (CBD) and other hemp-derived supplements in foods and beverages. The bill is a companion to the Hemp and Hemp-Derived CBD Consumer Protection and Market Stabilization Act of 2021, which was introduced in the House in February.
The Hemp Access act is designed to help bring clarity to a lucrative yet confusing industry: hemp and CBD. Right now, these products are sold in a gray area, since they’re not technically approved under federal law. Under the Farm Bill of 2018, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was supposed to create guidelines to regulate this prominent sector of the cannabis industry. To date, however, not much progress has been made outside of a few statements and official updates.
“The Hemp Access and Consumer Safety Act is a bill that only exists because the FDA has not done its job of regulating hemp-derived cannabinoids as an ingredient,” said Dawson. “I suspect this bill will be supported because it essentially compels the FDA to treat hemp-derived CBD specifically like a dietary supplement.”
“Theoretically it could move pretty easily, since it’s pretty narrowly-focused and is mandating something, the FDA promised to do anyway and just hasn’t gotten around to yet,” added Fox when asked about the prospects of the bill in the Senate.
Despite all this activity, industry insiders are still pessimistic about federal cannabis legislation – particularly on a comprehensive scale.
“I think there’s definitely a chance of something passing this year, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s going to be a comprehensive descheduling bill,” predicted Fox.
“At this point, we don’t expect federal legalization to happen this year,” said Dawson. “There is still too large of a gap in cannabis competency at the federal level, across legislators and would-be regulators.”