Since the dawn of the Drug War, federal legislators have stood by, or even applauded, as millions of Americans have racked up convictions for marijuana offenses — with arrests increasing in the latest FBI crime statistics, despite nearly a dozen states having already legalized cannabis. But over the past two years, and now accelerating with Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives, federal marijuana reform has become a hot topic on the Hill. Congress is weighing measures to tax and regulate cannabis; to open the federal banking system to pot businesses; to allow the industry to claim federal tax deductions; and, most powerfully, to repair the harms created by generations of prohibitionist policies.
“The federal momentum around marijuana reform is at the highest we’ve ever seen,” says Queen Adesuyi, who coordinates federal policy for the Drug Policy Alliance. The issue has gained traction across the political spectrum, from right-wing Alaska Rep. Don Young to moderate Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to left-wing superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Even former GOP House Speaker John Boehner has joined the board of a marijuana firm. “It’s an unprecedented moment,” Adesuyi says.
“It’s not a question of if we’re going to get a federal law,” says Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat who represents pot-legal Oregon and is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. “It’s a question of when.” At the national level, Wyden says, politicians are eager to bring order to the new marijuana reality, as half a dozen states, from Illinois to New Mexico, weigh legalization this year alone. “People are seeing that we’re headed to a crazy quilt of state laws,” he says, “and it would really make sense to have a federal, uniform set of rules.”
The most surprising development is that congressional efforts seem to have backing from Attorney General William Barr. In a previous stint leading the Justice Department in the 1990s, Barr authored a report titled “The Case for More Incarceration,” and he’s made clear he opposes marijuana reform as a personal matter. But during his nomination hearing in January, Barr vowed to end his predecessor Jeff Sessions’ crusade against state-legal pot, citing industry investments that were made under assurances by the Obama administration that pot businesses were not a priority for federal prosecution.