Washington D.C. is full of cannabis roadblockers, powerful legislators who needlessly prevent cannabis progress from occurring. But who are the worst cannabis roadblockers? Start with these five.
One need not be a hardened cynic to grasp that Congress, on the whole, is not in the business of doing the people’s business. If it were, the United States would years ago have had single-payer healthcare (58 percent popular support, according to Gallup), student-loan debt relief, stricter gun laws (55 percent), and repeal or reform of the Controlled Substances Act’s blanket prohibition on marijuana (there’s 60 percent support for legalization, and far more for medical cannabis).
We have none of the above items, which suggests something is amiss. And yet, Capitol Hill lawmakers more interested in donors than voters cannot resist forever. The “bums,” they do get thrown out: In 2006, Tom DeLay and his crew exited, helped along by scandal; in 2010, smug Democrats succumbed to the Tea Party “revolution”; and, if current indications hold true, if not quite a blue “tidal wave,” some force will send select enablers of Donald Trump from Washington’s august halls to post-electoral careers as K Street rainmakers or think-tank flunkies.
At the same time, only a bitter and ignorant cynic would declare everyone in Congress a corrupt monster. Let’s look at the cannabis question. At the time of this writing, there are 42 marijuana-related bills currently in Congress. There are bills to speed along marijuana research, reform banking and taxation restrictions, and legalize cannabis outright. This is a popular issue with bipartisan support. And yet these bills aren’t going anywhere. They’re either dead or doomed to die in limbo — for want of a committee hearing.
Here, then, is the rub. Not Congress as a whole, not the Civil War reenactment running the Justice Department, and not the president (not on this one). Bills only become law if the bill receives first a hearing in committee — and a bill only gets a hearing if it’s called by the committee chair. In this way, a handful of select lawmakers can block popular measures that impact millions of people from becoming law — and, if the committee chair is from, say, Texas, there’s very little the people of, say, California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine he is maligning can do about it.
Who are these folks? Glad you asked. Walk with us, won’t you, through the garden of cannabis roadblockers.
Cannabis Roadblocker #1: Pete Sessions
Perhaps nobody in Congress is more responsible for the current unpopular cannabis stalemate. A Texas Republican, Rep. Pete Sessions (no relation to Jefferson Beauregard III) has represented the northern neighborhoods and suburbs of Dallas for more than 20 years. It’s not the most conservative place — Sessions was recently re-elected with 71 percent support, but his district narrowly went for Hillary Clinton in November 2016 — but Sessions behaves as if a MAGA hat is glued to his head, voting with the Trump agenda more than 97 percent of the time.
As chair of the House’s Committee on Rules, Sessions is also one of the most powerful people in Congress. If a bill manages to make it out of another committee, the Committee on Rules can hold it up, or send it to another, unfriendly committee. In September, it was the Sessions-chaired Rules Committee that refused to allow the rest of Congress to even vote on a host of marijuana reform measures, some of them very modest. Opposition is one thing. Under Sessions, the Rules Committee is engaging in pure obstructionism — a tyranny of the minority.
Cannabis Roadblocker #2: Chuck Grassley
Remember the CARERS Act? What a big deal it was. There was Cory Booker, there was Kirsten Gillibrand, and there was Rand Paul, pushing bipartisan cannabis reform in the U.S. Senate. The days of marijuana bills coming from isolated back-benchers were over forever — but so was CARERS’s chances of becoming law, thanks to a lawnmower-riding lad from Iowa farm country.
Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley is chair of the Senate Judiciary committee. In a disingenuous op-ed co-written with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), a legendary foe of drug-policy reform in her own right, Grassley declared his support for expanded marijuana research, not long after declaring his opposition to just that. Grassley could have had everything he asked for in that op-ed, had he not used his position as chair of the Judiciary to block CARERS from a hearing.
Grassley is secure in his position as long as Republicans hold the Senate, which is bad news for cannabis reform. Also: That infamous remark about “good people” not smoking marijuana from Jeff Sessions, then an obscure and extremist senator from Alabama who nobody else in Washington really took seriously? That was entered into the record at a committee hearing called by Grassley. Thanks, Chuck.
Cannabis Roadblocker #3: Greg Walden
You might not expect a Congressmember from Oregon to be a roadblock obstructing progress on cannabis. But Greg Walden is Oregon’s token Republican in Congress. He’s promised to be a reliable Republican in Washington, as befits his conservative district, and as chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce — the oldest and longest-standing committee in the Congress — he’s more than doing his bit.
Twenty of the cannabis-related bills in Congress have been assigned to Walden’s committee, more than any other in Congress. Of these, a perfect, round zero have advanced to a hearing. Walden does this despite going on fact-finding hikes to Mount Hood with Portland’s Earl Blumenauer, a member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. Does Walden ever explain why Blumenauer’s bills — bills from others — don’t get anywhere around the campfire?
Cannabis Roadblocker #4: Bob Goodlatte
Cannabis reform is popular in Virginia, and yet a recent decriminalization measure died in the state legislature, after representatives from the state prosecutors’ association claimed, on record, that decriminalization would lead to toddlers eating weed. Who would say such a patently insane and absurd thing? Why, the kind of groups coalescing behind U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who has chaired the House Judiciary committee since 2013.
Behind Energy and Commerce, no committee receives more cannabis-related bills behind Judiciary, which is currently “considering” 18 such pieces of legislation. We use that verb loosely, because those bills, like the ones in Energy and Commerce, are languishing. While Goodlatte refused to allow impeachment proceedings of Barack Obama to proceed — laudable, in the same way a police officer who does not allow murder to proceed is laudable — he has proven himself not above backdoor dealing: It was he who oversaw a vastly unpopular effort, undertaken in secret, to gut Congress’s independent Office of Ethics. The good news for cannabis advocates is that Goodlatte is retiring.
Cannabis Roadblocker #5: Jim Sensenbrenner
One of the most modest — yes, you could say conservative — marijuana-related bills currently in Congress is H.R. 2273. Introduced by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania), the “Charlotte’s Web Medical Access Act of 2017” would excluded cannabidiol and other CBD-rich, low-THC plants from the DEA’s definition of marijuana — thus easily allowing access to plant-based medicine useful in treating intractable epilepsy.
So much around medical marijuana would be made easier if this bill became a law. And lo, it, too, is nearly a year old and has yet to receive a hearing.
What, why, and who? It’s been referred to the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. Its chair is Jim Sensenbrenner. A lifetime lawmaker who has represented suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin since 1978, it’s Sensenbrenner whom we have to thank for the post-9/11 PATRIOT Act.
Sensenbrenner notably voted against providing post-Katrina aid to New Orleans, and was forced to apologize to Michelle Obama after referring to the then-First Lady’s “big butt” during a church meeting. And he’s the definition of a cannabis roadblock, since Rep. Perry’s law allowing CBD oil to not be classified as more dangerous than heroin is not becoming law, thanks to Jim Sensenbrenner.
Of course there are other cannabis roadblockers in our nation's capital. But these five, they are some of the most problematic.