The 117th Congress – What To Watch
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The 117th Congress – What To Watch

Before we dive into what to watch this Congress, we’d like to acknowledge the totally unacceptable and disgusting violence that besieged the Capitol recently. You can read NCIA’s statement on the insurrection here.

by Michelle Rutter Friberg, NCIA’s Deputy Director of Government Relations

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We’re barely halfway through January, and it already feels like so much has happened in 2021! We at NCIA anxiously watched along with the rest of the country to see who would be victorious in the Georgia Senate races and, subsequently, which party would control the U.S. Senate. Both of the Democrats, Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated their Republican opponents and won their races —- ensuring that the Senate will be split 50-50 with Vice President-elect Harris being the tiebreaker.

The 117th Congress has barely begun, but after Inauguration Day on January 20th, things will really take off here in the nation’s capital. Keep reading to see my answers to FAQ’s for the new Congress:

Whatever happened to the SAFE Banking Act?

During the 116th Congress, the SAFE Banking Act (H.R. 1595/S. 1200) became the first cannabis-related bill to be passed by a chamber of Congress. In September of 2019, SAFE came to the House Floor under a suspension of the rules and passed by a whopping 321-103. While the bill had a hearing in the Senate Banking Committee back in the summer of 2019, it never received a markup or moved further than that. In addition to the bill itself, the SAFE Banking Act was also included in not one, but two COVID-19 relief packages passed by the House, colloquially known as HEROES I & II. 

This session, the SAFE Banking Act will be back, and with even better chances to pass! The bill will be reintroduced in both the House and Senate in the next 1-2 months and we expect little to no changes to the text. Additionally, we’re also continuing to work with our Hill champions on this issue to see if we can get the language included in the next COVID-19 relief package — something that both President-elect Biden and Democratic leadership has said is pretty much priority number one. 

In the meantime, keep an eye out for reintroduction and for how many cosponsors the bill has when it’s dropped — when the 116th Congress ended, SAFE had already passed the House as but also had 33 Senate cosponsors — that’s one-third of the entire chamber!

What’s next for the MORE Act and comprehensive cannabis reform? Is legalization on the horizon?

Cannabis policy ended the year on a high note (no pun intended!) when the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act (H.R. 3884), commonly known as the MORE Act, passed out of the House of Representatives by a vote of 228-164. 

As I mentioned earlier, all eyes were on the Georgia Senate races as we strategized over what could be possible for the 117th Congress depending on the outcome. With the results in, we now have a better idea about what’s possible with comprehensive reform, but there’s still a lot of unknowns.

We know that the MORE Act will be reintroduced sometime in the coming months in both the House and Senate. In the Senate, the lead sponsor was Kamala Harris, who is now Vice President-elect, which means another Senator will have to pick up the torch. I can’t share with you who it’s going to be just yet, but trust me when I say they will be a wonderful lead and are a true champion for cannabis reform! 

A reintroduced MORE Act will likely have a good number of edits and changes, but the underlying intent of the bill will be the same: to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and help repair the harms the war on drugs has done — specifically to communities of color. 

We also know that comprehensive reform, in general, has a better chance of advancing given that Democrats now control the Senate. Sen. Schumer (D-NY) was quoted in October as saying if he’s reinstalled as Majority Leader he “will put this bill in play,” and “I think we’ll have a good chance to pass it”, talking about his own bill, the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act (S. 1552)

All of that being said, legalization, or the passage of comprehensive reform is far from a done deal. Legislation requires 60 votes for passage in the Senate, and we have a lot of hard work to do to get to that level of support in the upper chamber. In the House, Democrats have an even slimmer majority now than during the 116th Congress, so we also have to make sure we don’t lose support there.

What about appropriations?

You’ve been involved in cannabis for a long time if you remember when the appropriations process was the only way to get Congress to talk about this issue. But now, with Democrats controlling both chambers, you may be hearing more about these amendments again.

Appropriations bills are legislation in Congress that “appropriates,” or sets aside, federal funds to be divided between specific federal government departments, agencies, and programs. Read more about this process and why it matters for cannabis here

Over the last few years, the House has continued to pass marijuana-related amendments but were unable to get through the Senate due to Republican control and a “gentleman’s agreement” between the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. But now, all of that will change. 

In the past, appropriations amendments have been introduced that touch on a multitude of issues: research, veterans, medical and adult-use cannabis, hemp, banking… the list goes on! In this session, expect to see cannabis-related amendments included in the final budget. Just remember that budget bills must be passed annually, so anything that comes into law this way must be renewed again next year!

What’s going to happen at the committee level?

If you’re following cannabis policy at the federal level, definitely keep your eyes on what’s happening in various congressional committees. Given who controls both chambers, all of the committees will now be chaired by Democrats, which means you’re going to see a lot of cannabis-related bills come up for hearings and markups. Some I’ll be keeping my eye on, including both chambers’ appropriations, financial services, tax, and judiciary committees. 

The opportunities for reforming our outdated cannabis laws have never been brighter than they are right now as we begin the 117th Congress. Bills are going to begin dropping left and right — and that’s because there’s a ton of excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism about what we can accomplish over the next two years.

Want to learn more about what’s possible? Make sure your company is an active member of NCIA and register for our next members-only webinar with our government relations team on Wednesday, January 27, or, if you can’t make it, hop on over to NCIA Connect to chat with us and learn more about what we’re working on in D.C.!

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