Why The Republican Cannabis Legalization Bill Could Have Better Odds Than Democratic Proposals

After years of Democrats steering the cannabis conversation on Capitol Hill, federal legalization is officially no longer a one-party issue.

On Monday, South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace and Republican colleagues unveiled the States Reform Act, which would remove cannabis from the list of drugs scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act, impose a 3% federal tax on sales and regulate weed like the U.S. does alcohol, with a minimum age of 21 for consumers.

In a nod to Southern and GOP-controlled states — and in a departure from other Democrat-sponsored bills — the proposal would let states keep criminalizing cannabis if they so choose, while also giving a federal blessing to those that have already opted to tax and regulate weed.

“There’s so much in here for everyone,” said Mace outside the Capitol Building on Monday, touting the legislation’s cross-aisle political appeal.

Political watchers say the bill could have a better chance of passing than Democrat-sponsored proposals, particularly in light of a forecasted Republican swing in 2022 and recent infighting among Democrats that has dampened momentum for legalization. And, more than ever, some observers say business interests are driving the conversation, as evidenced by competing tax rates and funding allocations in legalization bills.

Miles Coleman, associate editor of the political newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, noted there’s a growing appetite for legalization among Republicans, pointing to GOP-dominated states like Montana and South Dakota where residents voted to legalize adult use.

“It’s one of those things that moves super quick,” he said. “There’s a constituency for it,” particularly among Libertarian voters who traditionally support legalization.

The States Reform Act is also now competing with more equity-minded, Democrat-led proposals like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act and Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s (D-N.Y.) MORE ACT.

Both bills would legalize weed and impose higher federal tax rates than Mace is proposing — escalating from 10% to 25% over three years for Schumer’s bill, and from 5% to 8% for Nadler’s — to help reinvest in communities harmed by the War on Drugs and extend more cannabis business opportunities to people of color.

Mace’s legislation, by comparison, would largely put tax revenues towards police training, re-entry programs, mental health services for veterans, fighting opioid abuse, preventing underage cannabis use and supporting small businesses.

If it is a contest between both sides, timing is everything, Coleman said. Early forecasts suggest Republicans are in good standing to take control of at least one chamber of Congress, if not both, in 2022.

“If Mace gets re-elected and she’s in the majority party, and [Democrats] haven’t passed any big marijuana legalization measure by then, I think her measure might have the best chances out of the current ones,” he said.

Emily Dufton, a drug historian and the author of “Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.” said the new Republican legalization measure is “an interesting twist” in U.S. cannabis policy history. However, it’s not the first time the country has seen conservatives advocate for liberalizing cannabis.

She pointed to former Republican Gov. Ray Shafer, who in the early 1970s chaired the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse during the Nixon administration as it sought to place cannabis under Schedule I of the then-proposed Controlled Substances Act. After two years studying perceptions and use of cannabis in America, Shafer’s 13-member commission issued recommended eliminating all criminal penalties for the plant’s use and possession. (Nixon’s administration, of course, did not adopt those recommendations and shelved the report.)

And there’s also William F. Buckley, the late conservative commentator and founder of the National Review, who wrote in favor of legalization and famously published “The Time Has Come: Abolish the Pot Laws” on the cover of a 1972 print magazine issue, which featured editorials in a similar vein.

In both of those examples, Dufton said, “they’re kind of defending legalization or decriminalization on this political/moral basis where they’re like, ‘this is the right thing to do.’”

Mace’s legalization push — which notably has Republican co-sponsors in Reps. Tom McClintock (CA), Brian Mast (FL), Peter Meijer (MI) and Rep. Don Young (AL) — is of a different nature, however, Dufton said. For evidence, she said, look to Mace’s proposed 3% tax rate, favorable to business interests.

“It’s just sort of money speaking right now,” Dufton said.

She believes conservative politicians are now seeing a potential “gold rush” from cannabis. Recent examples have included former Republican House Speaker John Boehner joining the board of multi-state operator Acreage Holdings, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell embracing hemp as a cash crop in his home state of Kentucky.

Polling data suggests a steady shift not just among politicians. A record-high 68% of American adults said they support legalizing cannabis in a Gallup Poll published two weeks ago. That love hasn’t always been evenly spread — in 2013, the first time Gallup recorded majority support for legalization nationwide, just 35% of Republicans were in support — but as of this month it’s become an even split, with 50% in favor and 49% against.

The old party line on cannabis policy was clear after Monday’s announcement, when the chair of Mace’s own state Republican Party spoke out vehemently in opposition, telling The State, “Unequivocally, the South Carolina Republican Party is against any effort to legalize, decriminalize the use of controlled substances, and that includes this bill.”

But Coleman, of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said Mace’s proposal is an example of how looking ahead, the GOP has an opportunity to capitalize on shifting opinion, particularly among its younger base.

“I think some of the millennials and the Gen Z voters probably lean more Democratically based on social issues, but if the Republicans can take some of that real estate, I think politically that can really help them,” he said.

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