The Prospects for Federal Legalization of Marijuana

There are enough Republican senators from states where marijuana has been legalized: Alaska (2), Colorado (1), and Nevada (1) to tip the balance in the Senate on a bill to legalize Marijuana federally (or, if possible, at least some compromise that prevents federal law from being enforced in states that legalized).

The House? 26 Republican members hail from states with legal pot:

  • Alaska (1)
  • California (14)
  • Colorado (4)
  • Maine (1)
  • Massachusetts (0)
  • Nevada (1)
  • Oregon (1)
  • Washington (4)

With a split in the House of 239/193 (3 vacancies), the tipping point would be 24 members, which makes it close (and assumes that all Democratic members would vote aye while all non-legalization-state Republicans would vote nay).

Given that eight states have already legalized marijuana, 14 have decriminalized, and 29 have medical marijuana, it is inevitable that federal-level legalization will develop. The question is how close is the Congress from enacting that.

2018’s midterm elections could prove pivotal in the House for the election of a body with enough votes on the matter. You also can count at least four states considering legalization via ballot initiative (Arizona, Florida, Missouri, and Nebraska) plus three more medical initiatives (Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Dakota). Passage would add more representatives to the count.

But assuming it does not, the question becomes how much leverage the legal industries, both recreational and medical, have to get non-legalizing states’ members to cooperate.

For example, the banking industry would see benefits to a change in law allowing for the marijuana industry to participate in the regular financial system. Given that the industry is poised to be worth some $40 billion by the end of the decade, that’s a lot of transactions and contracts for various businesses to profit from.

These subsidiary businesses, which include those who are supply-chain for manufacture, distribution, and marketing of processed products, as well as out-of-state home-growing/horticulture suppliers, all have some level of sway over legislators.

It’s not clear what would happen today, much less in a year or two, if the Congress took up a bill on repealing federal sanction of marijuana. Which gets to the other hurdle: leadership. Speaker Ryan is unlikely to allow such a bill to come to a vote any time soon. The dysfunction in Washington means that there are a number of high-stakes issues currently under consideration, with deals to be made or not. That includes the basic question of funding the government.

Such an environment is not ripe for an issue like marijuana to come up, so it will likely take one of two things (or both): the midterms turning the House into an especially pro-legalization body that’s ready to act, or AG Sessions deciding to crack down in legal states.