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Fed's Pot Shot

Mitch McConnell fights legalization

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This month, the U.S. House of Representatives will take a historic vote: to finally legalize cannabis federally. It will almost certainly pass, and then it will almost certainly fail in the Senate.

Nevertheless, the action will be remembered as a major stepping stone toward legalization, which is likely to happen sometime in the coming months or few years, assuming there is still an American republic in which duly elected legislators pass laws according to the U.S. Constitution (bizarrely, that's not a given at the moment).

Pretty much everybody wants it, even in the Senate, where legalization has bipartisan support, as it does in the House. Banks want it because it would allow them to do business with a big, new, lucrative client—one that at the moment is drawing billions of dollars from both investors and consumers. About two-thirds of Americans now support legalization, up from just 12 percent in 1969 and 30 percent in 2000. Pot is legal for adult use in 11 states plus Washington, D.C., and legal for medical use in all but six states.

The Prohibition Era is over, but the federal government simply hasn't caught up to the rest of the country, so the effects linger. Those effects are both severe and wide-ranging: Interstate transport of weed is still a major felony, curtailing the growth of a big, new industry that now employs several times more people than the coal industry does. Federally chartered banks are still hesitant to do business with cannabis companies because of the potential criminal liability. Many doctors, especially those working for the Veteran's Administration, still hesitate to even discuss cannabis as a medical treatment. In 2018, about 663,000 people were arrested on cannabis-related charges. Even as the country roils over the treatment of Black suspects by cops, Black people are 3.6 times likelier than whites to be arrested on pot charges.

All of these problems would be relieved by passage of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act (MORE), which is slated for a floor vote later this month. The only people who are against it are the few remaining prohibitionists, who have no power, and a few Republican senators.

Unfortunately for proponents of legalization, one of those senators is the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.

McConnell's opposition to legalization (and other legislation such as the SAFE Banking Act) is often discussed as a mystery. McConnell was a major force behind the 2018 legalization of hemp, marijuana's non-intoxicating cousin. Hemp is a big industry in McConnell's home state of Kentucky, so that explains his support for it. But why is he holding up legalization of pot?

Most likely, he just doesn't care much about it one way or another. But Kentucky is still a very conservative state, and as long as weed remains illegal, he can use it as a culture-war cudgel. He did just that in July when the Senate was debating a package of Covid-relief proposals. One of them (which was later removed) included liability protection for banks dealing with cannabis businesses. That included a line about promoting diversity in cannabis. It was a minor provision in relation to the bill as a whole, but McConnell rode it hard: He warned that passing the Covid relief package would "send diversity detectives into the cannabis industry."

While support for legalization is bipartisan, opposition is not: it's essentially all Republican. That's why Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said last month that if Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris win the White House in November, he thinks pot will be legalized "in 2021."

"It should be, amongst other things, a recognition that so much of what has happened over the last 20 to 25 years in our country is that we have criminalized being Black, being brown, being immigrant, being poor, substance issues, mental health issues, homelessness issues—we've criminalized it," Markey said.

Biden has mostly maintained his staunch opposition to pot—just last year, he repeated his declaration that it's a "gateway drug"—but Harris has not. She opposed adult-use legalization up until a few years ago. Now, she's sponsoring the MORE Act in the Senate.

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