The 118th Congress Is Now in Session – Where Is Marijuana Reform?

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Pro-marijuana advocates have been holding out hope that the 118th Congress would find a way to get marijuana reform to both chambers and to the president’s desk sometime this year (2023). Well, the new Congress is now officially in session. So where do we stand on marijuana reform?

If reform does come in 2023, the most likely scenario suggests rescheduling rather than decriminalization. What would this mean at the state level? States would probably continue doing what they already do.

In Utah, according to the Deseret Wellness pharmacy in Park City, medical cannabis would still be legal while recreational consumption remains banned. In New York, both medical and recreational use would continue unabated. We would see similar scenarios in all the states with legal cannabis.

Medical cannabis
Medical cannabis and stethoscope on a blue background. Copy space, top view.

Where the Two Chambers Stand

On the Senate side, it appears as though the Democrat majority is ready to vote on something – really anything, if need be. The only question is what they will vote on. Will they go full decriminalization or simply reschedule marijuana to make it more accessible as a medicine?

As for the House, it is now under Republican control. There are enough pro-marijuana GOP members to get something passed, especially with the help of their Democrat colleagues. At issue now is whether newly elected Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy can smooth over party infighting to actually get a bill through committee.

President Biden is the wildcard in all of this. He has historically been against decriminalization. However, he made some moves in late 2022 signaling his willingness to consider rescheduling marijuana to Schedule II or Schedule III.

It Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had some difficulty getting a marijuana reform bill to the floor in 2022. The biggest problem he faced were criticisms that none of the proposed bills went far enough. Pro-marijuana senators appear to be unwilling to accept anything less than full decriminalization with special concessions given to minority groups who want to get into the legal marijuana business.

For his part, Schumer is smart enough to know that full decriminalization will be a hard sell for the president. He also knows that he does not have the votes to override a potential presidential veto. Schumer is pragmatic enough to take what he can get and continue attacking decriminalization incrementally. Some of his colleagues are not.

Let It Stand Alone

House efforts to pass meaningful reform legislation could fail if certain GOP members believe bills go too far. In 2022, the Republican-led effort to reform marijuana laws centered around banking reform and decriminalization. The GOP was fully on board with the former but not the latter.

Reform was thwarted in 2022 when Congress decided to address banking reform by attaching the SAFE Act to a defense spending bill. When that didn’t work, lawmakers tried attaching it to a general spending bill. Both efforts failed in the Senate with more conservative members calling for the measure to be voted on as a separate bill.

That story is likely to repeat itself thanks to the concessions McCarthy made to get the House speakership. One of his concessions was a promise to require single-issue bills in the House. Single-issue bills force lawmakers to take a position on marijuana reform rather than side stepping controversy by hiding it in another bill that has nothing to do with reform.

2023 is now here and time marches on. With Congress finally getting to work, marijuana reform is back on the table. Now we wait to see how far it goes.


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