Democrats reclaimed control of the House on Tuesday, in the process seizing some seats held by Republicans lawmakers who were leaders on marijuana reform on Capitol Hill. Advocates have mixed feelings about what that could mean for cannabis in the 116th Congress.
Marijuana-friendly Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Scott Taylor (R-VA), Mike Coffman (R-CO) and Jason Lewis (R-MN) lost their reelection bids, among others. And while the Democratic victors of those midterm battles are generally supportive of efforts to reform federal marijuana laws, the loss of Republicans who’ve embraced cannabis reform could complicate efforts to move the ball forward on bipartisan legislation.
Here’s how the outgoing GOP congressmen contributed to marijuana reform:
Rohrabacher—Arguably the most vocal marijuana supporter on the Republican side of the House, Rohrabacher has sponsored an amendment that prohibits the Department of Justie from using federal funds to intervene in state legal medical marijuana programs since the early 2000s. He’s also introduced standalone legislation to amend the Controlled Substances Act to exempt individuals acting in compliance with state cannabis laws.
Curbelo—The congressman is the lead sponsor of a bill meant to amend an Internal Revenue Service code that bars marijuana businesses from making legitimate business deductions or receiving tax credits. This summer, Curbelo also became the lead GOP cosponsor of a bill that directs the federal government to study the impact of state legalization efforts on things like crime and public health.
Taylor—Though he’s taken less of a leadership role on the issue than Rohrabacher or Curbelo, Taylor has cosponsored a few marijuana reform bills, including the marijuana business tax legislation and another that would effectively end the federal prohibition of cannabis. He’s also said that legal marijuana can help lift rural Virginia communities out of poverty.
Coffman—Coffman, from legalized Colorado, has cosponsored numerous marijuana-related bills over the last seven years, including one to legalize industrial hemp and another to exempt individuals acting in compliance with state marijuana laws from the CSA and also federally reschedule cannabis.
Lewis—The congressman has criticized the war on drugs, believes that states should have the right to legalize medical cannabis and has cosponsored several bills aimed at reforming federal marijuana laws.
Don Murphy, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project and a former Republican state lawmaker from Maryland, is concerned about the loss of the GOP allies on Capitol Hill. He told Marijuana Moment that he expects House Democrats to “load up” cannabis legislation with “deal killing amendments the GOP Senate and President Trump won’t accept.”
He also said the message voters sent to pro-reform Republicans who lost on Election Day was that supporting cannabis reform alone isn’t enough to win the hearts of left-leaning reform advocates. It made it “difficult to suggest that drug policy is both good policy and good politics,” Murphy said. “Liberals will still hate you, but they’ll hate you less.”
That said, “Marijuana policy reform is still the right thing to do and is often more popular than the pols it shares the ballot with, so in that respect, it is also the right thing to do politically,” Murphy added.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who’s worked with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to promote marijuana reform and last month released a plan for Democrats to federally legalize cannabis in 2019, doesn’t think Tuesday’s losses will stop the bipartisan momentum that’s been building.
“I think we will continue to see more bipartisan progress because Republicans members of Congress, after the election results, I think are going to look for ways that they can support what their public wants and engage in bipartisan problem-solving,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment during a press call on Wednesday. “And we’ll give them opportunities for bipartisan problem-solving.”
“We’ve always embraced a bipartisan approach to this. I will continue to that—to reach out, to provide opportunities.”
Where Murphy, Blumenauer and others do agree, however, is that there will continue to be some Republican leadership on the issue, in spite of the fact that some of the more recognizable Republican faces of reform are leaving. Both pointed to Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), who earlier this year introduced an amendment to protect legal medical cannabis states from federal interference, as an example of someone who they expect to pick up the torch in a bigger way.
And having someone like Joyce lead the charge on marijuana from the GOP side of the aisle—as opposed to a lawmaker marred by controversy over Russia ties like Rohrabacher—could ultimately bolster reform efforts, giving Republicans a more palatable champion for cannabis legislation.
Blumenauer also said he expects new Republican faces to get behind federal cannabis reform now that anti-marijuana Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) has lost and will no longer control the House Rules Committee, where he’s repeatedly blocked votes on common sense marijuana legislation.
“I think when the House is able to have the Congress function in its role of oversight and legislation, more and more Republicans will take the opportunity to be on the side of their public,” he said.
Sessions’s loss in general represents one of the best pieces of news from the midterm elections for reform advocates, particularly for members of Congress on both sides who’ve been interested in passing legislation that would allow marijuana businesses to make valid tax deductions or extend protections against federal interference in legal medical cannabis states, for example.
It’s too early to tell how lawmakers will navigate marijuana reform after the new Congress is seated in January, but things could speed up quickly if outgoing Rohrabacher’s prediction comes true—that reform will be on the White House agenda now that the midterms are over. Blumenauer seemed to back up his colleague’s claim on the the call, telling another reporter that he’s also had “informal and formal” talks with White House officials that’s led him to a similar conclusion.