Could a Democrat-Controlled DC Change Cannabis Laws in the South?
Following a hotly-contested presidential election, Washington’s transition to a Democrat-majority legislative branch has brought a number of hot-button issues to the fore—not the least of which is federal cannabis legalization.
While an increasing number of states have already fully
decriminalized cannabis use, a number of Southern states have only legalized it for adult medical use. How does cannabis legalization currently look in the South? As of this writing, the majority of Southern states have only legalized its medical use, as well as non-psychoactive cannabis compounds such as cannabidiol (CBD) and terpenes, fragrant oils that give cannabis its diversity.
Southern states like Texas and Louisiana are notable holdouts when it comes to recreational cannabis legalization, given both have significant contingents of progressive voters among young adults. These demographic trends are turning some Southern states into a hotbed of debate, not only around cannabis but a variety of contemporary socio-political issues.
Cannabis legalization is showing signs of gaining momentum in the South, with some Republican lawmakers beginning to show support and a major recreational marijuana initiative expected on the Arkansas ballot in 2022.
In this post, we go over how the recent Democrat takeover of the Oval Office and House of Representatives—as well as the new 50-50 seat
stalemate in the Senate—might palpably affect cannabis laws in Southern states.
A Progressive Shift in Southern Politics
A number of socially progressive lawmakers have emerged out of the South in recent years, almost all of whom support federal cannabis legalization. Beto O’Rourke, for example, not only supports decriminalization; the former Texas congressman has repeatedly expressed his support for a pathway to expungement for cannabis-related drug charges and had himself proposed so-called “drug war injustice grants” for marijuana offenders in 2019.
O’Rourke and other cannabis supporters believe comprehensive controls legislation can create safe and lucrative legal cannabis markets in Southern states. Regulations would include testing and production guidelines for newer products like delta 8 THC vape cartridges, as well as public
smoking restrictions. Lawmakers backing cannabis in the South also cite legalization’s incidental benefits—such as significantly increased tax revenues and well-documented reductions in crime rates—as particularly important in a pandemic-triggered economic recession.
Cannabis Legalization at the Federal Level
It’s worth noting that Democrat lawmakers on Capitol Hill had drafted several cannabis legalization bills throughout the Trump administration, but could never muster enough votes against the Republican majority in the Senate. Now, with Biden in the Oval Office, a comfortable House majority and a power-sharing agreement in the Senate, Democrats would only have to flip a few fiscal conservatives to pass federal cannabis legalization.
This advantage is obviously not lost on veteran Democrat lawmakers, as evidenced by their quick passing of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act in December last year. The MORE Act has been described by DNC leadership as a “comprehensive legalization bill,” with key provisions for a legal cannabis market including full decriminalization of cannabis at the federal level; the removal of cannabis and its primary cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from the Controlled Substances Act; the removal of cannabis from Schedule I drug classification under the Drug Enforcement Agency’s drug scheduling system; a pathway to expungement for cannabis-related drug criminal records; and allowing cannabis businesses and farms easier access to financial institutions and services, such as banking, lending et cetera. This provision is designed to complement items in the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking (SAFE) Act of 2019.
The MORE Act is the first cannabis liberalization bill to have passed the House via an overwhelming majority since prohibition. All eyes are on the Senate now, where Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has introduced his own legalization bill. With broad support from progressive voters and significant support from younger conservative voters, Democrats look
better positioned than ever to legalize cannabis by 2024.