Lots of Smoke but Little Fire

Marijuana legalization has support in Congress, but significant legislation is unlikely to pass this year.

Lots of Smoke but Little Fire

June 2022   minute read

By: Jon Taets

A search for legislation introduced in the 117th Congress containing the words “marijuana” or “cannabis” will return a few hundred results. That said, just a few pieces of legislation are truly notable, and only two measures have passed in either chamber. 

The legislation that garners the most attention is the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE), which is the only bill to pass the House with significant bipartisan support. The SAFE Banking Act cleared the House on April 19, 2021, with all Democrats present and 106 Republicans voting in support. The legislation removes the federal banking regulations that prevent federally chartered banks from providing banking services to businesses engaged in marijuana markets in states where it is legal. 

Despite the broad bipartisan support in the lower chamber, the legislation’s future in the Senate remains murky. In that chamber Democrat leaders are hoping to include a version of SAFE Banking in a larger comprehensive marijuana legalization bill led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Schumer, and others, appear to be concerned that passing SAFE Banking on its own would make passing more comprehensive legislation that much more difficult in a narrowly divided chamber. 


Beyond SAFE Banking, the House has also passed legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) passed the House on a largely party line vote on April 1. The MORE Act goes significantly further than SAFE Banking by legalizing marijuana on the federal level and seeks to expunge many existing criminal records related to federal marijuana offenses. Previous iterations of the MORE Act have passed the House in prior Congresses but have never seen Senate action, and there is little reason to believe that this most recent version of the bill will fare differently. While opinions on legalizing marijuana may be softening on the Republican side of the aisle, many view the MORE Act as tilted toward social justice measures rather than legalization itself.


The first piece of Republican-led legislation was introduced in November 2021 by freshman South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC). Her bill, the States Reform Act, would legalize marijuana and create a federal regulatory structure to treat cannabis much the same way as alcohol. This approach would leave the final decisions on whether or not to allow marijuana use to state governments. Federal regulation of marijuana production would be housed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would regulate marijuana products in the same way it does those containing alcohol. Rep. Mace was joined by four other GOP representatives at introduction. 

Despite the broad bipartisan support in the lower chamber, the legislation’s future in the Senate remains murky. 

The States Reform Act isn’t likely to move in the Democrat-controlled Congress but stands as a marker for potential Republican interest in marijuana legalization legislation should Republicans gain control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections. 

A second Republican-led bill doesn’t go as far as Mace’s bill but does show Republican interest in sensible federal regulation of legal marijuana. Representative Dave Joyce (R-OH) introduced the Preparing Regulators Effectively for a Post-Prohibition Adult-Use Regulated Environment Act (PREPARE), alongside Florida Republican Brian Mast (RFL) and New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) on April 14, 2022. 

The PREPARE Act doesn’t legalize marijuana but focuses on ensuring that federal regulators are able to quickly issue relevant rules should legalization happen. Experts nominated by the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate, as well as the principals or designees from various federal departments and agencies with relevant authorities, would sit on a PREPARE commission. It also would include experts from two states that have legalized marijuana for adult use and one representative from a trade association or other nonprofit with members from multiple, highly regulated adult-use product companies. The commission would be required to issue recommendations to the federal government within one year of its formation. The future of the PREPARE Act in the House is unclear as well. 


While all of this action has taken place on the House side, the most anticipated legislation is yet to be introduced in the Senate. In July 2021, Sen. Schumer, along with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), released a draft of their Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). Despite lacking a Republican co-sponsor, the legislation remains notable because the Senate majority leader is the prime sponsor. No other legalization legislation has such a high-ranking congressional leader directly involved.

​​CAOA is meant to be a catchall, comprehensive legalization bill which would de-schedule marijuana, deal with many of the same social justice issues that the MORE Act addresses, as well as set up a federal regulatory structure for adultuse marijuana. The sponsors released the draft last year and opened it up for interested parties to provide comment. NACS assisted in providing comments on the parts of the legislation that seek to set up a federal regulatory structure through the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation (CPEAR). While introduction of the legislation had been expected sooner, Sen. Schumer announced in April that he hopes to introduce it ahead of the August recess, which begins on August 8. Even with the backing of the majority leader, the legislation is unlikely to move this year as the calendar ticks closer to the midterm elections in November. 

All this is to say that while the federal legalization of marijuana likely has never had such a positive reception or crowded list of legislation seeking it in Congress, its passage remains unlikely in the short term. The increased level of Republican interest raises the prospect of Congress considering some kind of marijuana legislation should that party take control for the 118th Congress. 

The other wild card is President Biden. While the president has expressed a belief that existing federal marijuana laws are outdated at best, he hasn’t offered clear support for full legalization. After the House passage of the MORE Act in April, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki would not explicitly state whether or not Biden supports the bill. 

For the time being, most of the concrete action on adult-use marijuana will remain at the state level as more and more states consider legalization either through legislation, or more commonly, ballot initiatives.

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