High Expectations: Will Cannabis Reform Pass Congress In 2021?

“What are we gonna do about these marijuana laws?”

While not the most viral song to reference cannabis, Ballyhoo!’s song “Marijuana Laws” (The OFFICIAL Anthem) is probably the only tune that discusses problems that challenge marijuana users today with an array of buoyant, reggae beats. For decades, Congress and the American people have been judging and doing something about these marijuana laws, starting with the days of the “War on Drugs” and continuing today with the recent changes.

America’s Strange Relationship with Cannabis

During the height of the “War on Drugs,” President Ronald Reagan famously condemned marijuana. He claimed that “smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast.” Likewise, American opinion on marijuana reached its nadir, with a clear majority opposing legalization.

Fast forward a few decades, and public opinion on marijuana took a complete one-eighty. Today, 68% of Americans support legalization, and lawmakers have had an embracive tone towards the drug.

So, what happened?

Well, there wasn’t a moment where the American people and politicians went to sleep, woke up, and abruptly became enlightened about marijuana. Like other contentious issues, opinions on marijuana transformed over time and were influenced by different factors. The most effective of which was its portrayal in the media.

During the “War on Drugs,” most of the media’s marijuana coverage was centered around drug irresponsibility and often exaggerated the connection between marijuana and more addictive and deadly drugs like cocaine and heroin.

Eventually, Americans were fear-mongered into fearing marijuana.

However, as time went on, media portrayal took major shifts that ultimately changed Americans’ perception of marijuana. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the media experienced a gradual decline in the overall coverage of marijuana, allowing the drug to lose its relevance and its exaggerated negative connotation. Then, during the growing opioid crisis of the 2010s, the media once again began increasing marijuana coverage and shifted its relevance towards its medical benefits. The media’s born-again obsession with the drug gave way to new discussions of other benefits with legalization, such as economic revenue, reductions in illegal drug dealings, and improved criminal justice. It was also at this time that marijuana saw its most significant increases in support.

States on the Move

While the media’s change in tone allowed marijuana to gain support among the American public, support for the drug among states is attributed to legalization in “pioneering” states, namely Colorado and Washington.

In 2010, 12 states and the District of Columbia had passed laws legalizing medical marijuana. As more and more Americans began supporting full legalization through the media’s help, as mentioned earlier, it was only a matter of time before a state would legalize recreational marijuana.

The 2012 election cycles saw marijuana groups get initiatives on ballots in Colorado and Washington, states with historical libertarian and liberal leanings. Both the initiatives garnered national attention. Numerous high-profile celebrities and organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, George Soros, and Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis, announced their support for legalization and contributed substantially to the campaigns.

On election day, both ballot initiatives passed by over 5 point margins. The years following the historic votes saw a wave of states dipping their feet in the waters of marijuana reform. State legislators were encouraged by the relatively positive results from both states and wanted to get in on the action. In 2021, 49 states have at the very least decriminalized marijuana or in some way legalized medical marijuana, and 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana.

Cannabis Legalization in Sight?

So, with almost every state in the Union passing some kind of marijuana reform and public opinion at record highs, many speculate that 2021 could be the year millions have been anticipating: federal marijuana legalization.

From previous votes on marijuana, Congress has shown some bipartisanship on the issue. Last year in the House, five Republicans and one Independent joined with Democrats to decriminalize marijuana through the MORE Act.

In the Senate, due to former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocking any substantial marijuana bills from reaching the Senate, there hasn’t been a conclusive vote on how marijuana decriminalization/legalization will go there. However, similar support from the chamber is expected with Republicans and most Democrats for marijuana legalization/decriminalization. Also, with staunch marijuana-legalization supporter Sen. Chuck Schumer now leading the Democratic-controlled Senate, we can expect a vote to happen soon.

But, several roadblocks make federal legalization and decriminalization in 2021 and even 2022 unlikely.

For cannabis reform to be law, it must first be approved by a committee, passed in the House, passed in the Senate, and finally signed into law by the President. The most challenging obstacle in passing marijuana reform is the Senate.

Democrats currently have a 50–50 majority in the Senate, so they’d have to receive the support of at least 10 Republicans to override a filibuster. McConnell has been a vocal critic of any marijuana reform unrelated to medical research and has blocked most marijuana-related bills — including the MORE Act — from reaching the Senate floor as Majority Leader.

Likewise, other prominent Republicans such as Sens. Linsey Graham and Mike Crapo have also been staunchly against marijuana reform, and there is little chance they’d be swayed this time around.

Even if a marijuana reform gets passed the Senate, Democrats still need to get the green light from President Biden. While a presidential veto isn’t very likely, Joe Biden hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for marijuana legalization and has proved himself to be a quiet character on the topic.

Overall, the chances of pro-marijuana politicians being able to draft a bill, get it approved by a committee, passed in the House, passed in the Senate, and get Joe Biden onboard all during the 117th Congress is very slim. Cannabis reform will likely not pass Congress this year or the next.

But for marijuana advocates left with the disappointment that the day they’ve been avidly anticipating won’t happen soon, don’t be discouraged. 2020 saw a record number of states legalize marijuana both medically and recreationally, and 2021 has already been radiating the same energy.

So while today’s marijuana laws are here to stay just for a little longer, sometime in the future, after marijuana is finally legalized, we may no longer have to sing or think, “What are we gonna do about these marijuana laws?”

Unlock The Grid is a national, youth-led bipartisan organization that aims to reduce polarization in Congress by promoting working across the aisle.

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