With the results of the 2020 election finalized, one of the clear winners was the cannabis industry, with every legalization proposal on the ballot passing. Voters in 2020 showed that cannabis legalization has grown in popularity to the point that it is no longer a partisan issue, but the progress seen in legalization at the state level has been accompanied largely by inaction at the federal level. The election of Joe Biden to the presidency and the recent progress of cannabis legislation in the House of Representatives give hope that the gridlock on nationwide cannabis reform may be coming to an end in 2021.
Unlike many of his Democratic primary opponents, President-elect Joe Biden has not voiced support for full legalization—but the incoming administration does show signs of being much warmer to cannabis reform than that of Donald Trump. While Biden has faced criticism over his record of support for punitive anti-drug laws throughout his career in the U.S. Senate, his campaign emphasized how his views on cannabis policy have come closer in line with those of the majority of Americans who support legalization.
The former Vice President has said that he will pursue decriminalization, medical legalization and expungements for those with past cannabis-use convictions. Joe Biden’s election will bring an administration more friendly to the industry, but substantive change to the legal status of cannabis is unlikely without action by Congress. Democrats were able to maintain a majority in the House and with the projected victories in the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs are on track to have 50 votes in the senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris acting as a tie breaker. These majorities in both houses spell out a path, albeit a narrow one, to cannabis reform legislation.
The first bill likely to move forward in 2021 is the MORE (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement) Act, a descheduling and social justice-focused bill which passed in the House in early December 2020 but was dead on arrival in the Senate. Though the bill will need to be reintroduced in 2021, the slim Democratic majority in the Senate gives it good odds of passing into law.
Cannabis reform being included as part of a larger spending bill in 2020 also points to 2021 being a productive year for cannabis reform. In May 2020, the House passed the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion Covid-19 relief package. Partisan differences led the bill to stall out in the Senate, but its passage through the House was significant as the spending package included the SAFE Act, a bill with bipartisan support to allow state-legal cannabis businesses to access much needed banking services. The SAFE Act was removed from the text of the follow-up bill signed by President Trump on Dec. 27, but with the new makeup of the Senate, it is likely that cannabis reform will be part of the stimulus packages that Congress and the President-elect have stated will be a priority in the first months of 2021.
One contributing factor to the success of cannabis reform in 2020 is the growing power of cannabis interests in the Capitol. Cannabis lobbying had a breakout year in 2019, with cannabis trade associations and businesses spending more than $5.7 million on federal lobbying that year. While this spending dropped to just over $3 million in 2020, cannabis lobbyists were accompanied by similarly interested beverage industry lobbyists, such as industry giants Anheuser-Busch and Constellation brands, which both disclosed that their lobbyists were working on CBD and cannabis issues in 2020. This new industry influence in Washington could help drive efforts for federal reform, possibly bringing in support from more conservative lawmakers who may be swayed by the economic opportunity cannabis reform offers.
While legalization advocates do still face an uphill road, the small successes of 2020 and new political makeup of D.C. suggest that there is great potential for progress to be made in the new year. With a president committed to limited reforms, a Senate that more accurately reflects voters’ desire for legalization and an invigorated industry more involved in the political progress than ever before, 2021 may be the year that the inaction on federal cannabis reform finally ends.