There’s a new sheriff in town.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York is the new Majority leader of the United States Senate. He dethroned the now Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after Democratic Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock dominated the Georgia runoff elections. As of President Biden’s Inauguration on Wednesday, the exchange of power is official. McConnell, the self-proclaimed Grim Reaper of Capitol Hill, is no longer calling the shots. Schumer is.
This is great news for cannabis advocates who have grown tired of watching as one marijuana-related bill after another gets snuffed out at the hands of Mitch McConnell. Over the past four years, the Democratic-controlled House has passed a few pot-related measures and sent them to the Senate for review. But that’s where all of their good intentions have gone to die. Not only did McConnell refuse to hear the bills, but he also presumably burned them out behind the Capitol.
McConnell championed the legalization of industrial hemp, but he’s never been a fan of marijuana. He promised that legalization would not transpire as long as he was running the show. “I don’t have any plans to endorse the legalization of marijuana,” McConnell said back in 2018.
The Kentucky-Republican was always flaunting his power. “I’m the one who decides what we take to the floor, that’s my responsibility as the majority leader,” he once told reporters. Therefore, one of the first things Senate Majority Leader Schumer can do for the marijuana movement is give legislation some consideration. He can allow bills to be debated and voted on by the full Senate. But will he?
Senator Schumer is a longtime friend of marijuana reform. He brought the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act to the table in 2018 and pushed it again the following year. He’s also been critical of weak cannabis banking measures and really pressured federal lawmakers to take a more hammer-fisted approach to legalizing marijuana at the national level. Schumer isn’t interested in taking baby-steps. Some of his last comments on the subject before becoming Senate Majority Leader suggested that he would push for full-blown legalization if the Democrats took over the majority. “If I become majority leader, I put this on the floor and it’s likely to pass,” he told Green Enterprise.
That’s right, Schumer could actually give marijuana a fighting chance at gaining ground in 2021.
The Senate Majority Leader sets the legislative schedule and controls the agenda. If Schumer wants the Senate to discuss the MORE Act (Marijuana Opportunity and Expungement Act) — a bill designed to legalize the leaf at the national level — it is going to happen. According to the Senate paradigm, “motions to proceed to the consideration of bills and resolutions on the calendar are usually made by the majority leader or his designee, who, as spokesman of his party and in consultation with his policy committee, implements and directs the legislative schedule and program.”
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But the minority leader still gets some input. In fact, the rules of the Senate shows that the minority leader can always move a bill. There’s just a gentlemen’s agreement in place, so nobody except the majority leader dictates the flow. This is why Schumer and McConnell are presently trying to negotiate a power-sharing deal on how the 50-50 Senate will operate. Democrats are trying to get rid of the filibuster, while McConnell is clinging on to it because it’s his only chance at maintaining power.
As it stands, though, Schumer is the top dog, which means that marijuana-related legislation will at least receive more consideration than when McConnell held the position. It just depends on whether the Democrats can get the necessary votes to pass something.
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However, there’s a lot more at stake this year than just pot reform. Finding ways to alleviate the continued hardship of the pandemic will come first. So, weed might not be the highest priority for Schumer at the very beginning. “We have a lengthy agenda, and we need to get it done together. … This will be an exceptionally busy and consequential period for the United States Senate,” he said in his first speech as majority leader. Still, it would be naïve to think that Schumer and the Democrats won’t use this unique opportunity to get a marijuana-related law on the books.
After all, the time is now. The Democrats could lose their majority power once again in the midterms.