How Will The New Congress Handle Cannabis Legalization Efforts?

Following 2020’s tumultuous U.S. elections and Georgia’s January 2021 Senate runoff elections which saw Democrats win two seats and seize control of both houses of Congress, the future of cannabis legalization in America is shining more brightly than ever. Newly elected Democrat Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have both explicitly supported the decriminalization or legalization of cannabis and their victories make it all the more likely that the House and Senate will attempt to pass progressive cannabis legislation. 

Legalization Gaining Popularity

The elections on November 3rd, 2020 saw a number of new states legalize cannabis, proof that millions of Americans are in favor of radically altering the current archaic system of cannabis criminalization. These recent elections are not alone in supporting the notion of a changing cultural view of cannabis. A late-2020 Gallup poll found that a staggering 68% of all Americans support legalizing cannabis.

While a wide majority of Americans support cannabis legalization efforts, an even greater percentage of registered Democrats are in favor of legalizing cannabis, over 83%. With the House, Senate, and Presidency under the control of Democrats it seems increasingly probable that some form of cannabis decriminalization or legalization will be pursued. Though Democrats hold the House of Representatives with a healthy margin, they hold only a razor thin advantage in the Senate. 

Cannabis Legalization Efforts About to Ramp Up?

Once Warnock and Ossoff are sworn in, Democrats and Republicans will each hold 50 seats in the U.S. Senate. However, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will hold the extra deciding vote as the president of the Senate. Though Harris has a less than stellar track record on cannabis criminalization due in large part to the way she prosecuted drug offenses during her tenure as California Attorney General, she did express her support for legalization throughout her 2020 campaign for the presidency as well as after she was announced as President-elect Joe Biden’s VP pick. 

Though nothing is certain until concrete legislation is proposed and votes are cast, Harris and many of her Democratic colleagues in Congress have given reason to believe that they may be in support of furthering progressive cannabis legislation. What these cannabis legalization efforts could look like is much more up in the air as it remains to be seen how far Democratic leadership would be willing to go in pursuit of progressive drug policies. 

It seems far more likely that Democrats would seek to pass cannabis decriminalization than it would be for them to attempt full-scale federal legalization. This is due in large part to the backlash some of the more conservative Democratic members of Congress, like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, would face from their constituents should Democrats lead the way in passing what could be construed as a “radical” federal legalization bill. 

What Democrat-led Cannabis Legislation May Look Like 

Imagining what federal cannabis decriminalization or legalization may look like is not as tough as it may initially seem. Over the past few years there have been bills put before Congress that although symbolic, made it clear that the political landscape surrounding legalization in America was shifting and shifting rapidly.

One such bill was proposed in the House of Representatives before being held up by procedural process in the House and by Republicans in the Senate. The bill, which passed in the House Judiciary Committee in 2019 would have decriminalized cannabis nationally, allowed states to make their own laws on full-scale legalization, and created the potential for the expunging of non-violent cannabis related criminal records. Though the 2019 bill did not become law, its passage through committee and the introduction of other bills like it provide a glimpse of what cannabis legalization efforts may look like from a Congress under Democrat control. 

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