Dank in D.C.

Legal hemp just passed the U.S. Senate, and eight other bills before Congress have high hopes of making marijuana a legal drug in the U.S.

It’s easy to forget marijuana is still technically illegal in the United States. Here in our Left Coast bubble of San Francisco, you can have weed delivered right to your door in 10 minutes or stroll into a dispensary and casually buy an entire ounce.

But cannabis remains a Schedule I drug in the eyes of the federal government, and half a million Americans are still arrested every year on marijuana charges. That’s more people still being arrested for cannabis than for murder, rape, and assault combined.

Some serious loosening of federal marijuana laws is in the works. There are currently nine pro-cannabis bills either before the U.S. Congress or being drafted, including the legalization of hemp that just passed in the Senate.

Additionally, Oakland’s own Rep. Barbara Lee has a Marijuana Justice Act bill before the House of Representatives that would remove cannabis’ Schedule I drug label and offer new opportunities to Drug War victims. 

There are so many pro-marijuana bills before Congress that if Schoolhouse Rock were still around, the “Just a bill, sitting on Capitol Hill” character would be depicted as a fat joint.

“The biggest message that we’re getting is that federal lawmakers across the aisle are really on board with marijuana legalization,” Drug Policy Alliance staff attorney Jolene Forman tells SF Evergreen. “This is no longer a fringe issue. It’s not a matter of if we’re going to legalize, it’s a matter of how to do so in the best way possible.”

That all sounds encouraging! But the reality is less so. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) did formally introduce a Senate bill last week to decriminalize marijuana, but most of the other proposals, covering everything from legalization to upholding states’ rights to taxation, are unlikely to ever see a full congressional vote. 

The only cannabis bill with a strong likelihood of becoming law is Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) proposal to completely legalize hemp, the non-psychoactive fibers and seeds in the plant that contain CBD but don’t get you high. It would be a big pork-spending win for McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, and as majority leader, he rolled his hemp bill into the $867 billion omnibus farm legislation that overwhelmingly passed the Senate last week.

If it passes the House of Representatives, which the farm bill does every five years, it would legalize production of hemp for paper, plastic, and industrial production, and allow the extraction of medically beneficial CBD products.

“It’s only a start. We really need full cannabis legalization,” Forman notes. “Even just from a medical perspective, CBD alone doesn’t address most patients’ needs.”

Lee’s Marijuana Justice Act has a leg up as the only true legalization bill of the bunch with both Senate and House versions. (Sen. Cory Booker’s Senate version recently signed Bernie Sanders as a co-sponsor.) And it’s the most sweeping bill, with financial investments in communities of color to repair the damage done by the Drug War.

“Bills like the Marijuana Justice Act are so important, because they include provisions that impair the harm of prohibition, and go beyond just decriminalizing or legalizing,” Forman says.

But that’s precisely why Lee’s bill is unlikely to make it out of committee. Every committee in Congress has a Republican chairperson, most of whom are anti-cannabis and pro-prison-industrial complex.

While 63 percent of Americans support legalization, most elected Republicans don’t. Many of these bills are just symbolic pandering to pro-pot voters that have little bipartisan support.

“It seems that politicians, knowing how the public feels on this issue, are trying to appear on the side of the people without actually having to take real action,” Flow Kana vice president of community relations Amanda Reiman tells SF Evergreen.

“If any federal movement can happen, it will likely be around banking first,” Reiman says. “That is an issue where politicians can support reform without supporting — and even still opposing — the use of cannabis.”

None of these nine bills is a banking bill, although one would allow cannabis businesses to deduct business expenses from their taxes.

But it is victory of sorts that cannabis legalization is the trendy bandwagon that lawmakers are jumping on. And there are a record number of pro-marijuana bills “sitting on Capitol Hill.” The question is whether Congress will ever offer relief to the nearly  12,000 Americans who are sitting in prison on cannabis charges.