There is a lot of water cooler talk going on these days surrounding the issue of marijuana legalization at the national level, but very few Americans truly have a grip on the kind of legislative magic that needs to take place on Capitol Hill to actually make weed legal in all 50 states.
In theory, the process of getting a marijuana bill passed into law is relatively simple; it involves a handful of meetings, votes and ultimately final approval from the President of the United States. Anyone who has ever seen the old School House Rock segment “I’m Just a Bill” has a basic understanding of the legislative grind, but the reality is many complicated variables must fall into place for any bill to prove successful.
It is a long shot for a bill to become law. Statistics show that only around four percent of the thousands (yes, thousands) of measures introduced in Congress each year become law. So, it stands to reason that betting on a controversial subject such as the legalization of a substance that has been on the prohibition list for the past eight decades might not pan out.
But we have to try.
It was announced last month that members of the newly formed Congressional Cannabis Caucus—a fancy name for a very small group of federal lawmakers pushing for nationwide pot reform—introduced a slew of bills in both chambers of Congress in hopes of legalizing marijuana at the federal level.
Among this list of contenders are a couple of bills (the “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act” and the “Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act”) aimed at making a legitimate industry out of marijuana; one that would allow pot products to be regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and sold at your friendly neighborhood pot shop.
The Cannabis Caucus has done the easy part—drafting and filing a couple of pieces of legislation designed to drag America out of prohibitionary times—but what exactly needs to happen to make this nice dream a reality?
A lot, actually.
Once a bill like the “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act” has been submitted, it is given an identification number (HR 1841) and then referred to a committee for review. Sadly, none of this means much—it certainly does not guarantee the proposal will get a fake shake on the Hill.
That’s because the chairman of the committee has the power to determine whether the proposal receives any consideration, or even better, whether it will get a “mark up,” which is just D.C. jargon for the kind of action (debates, amendments, rewrites) that needs to happen before a bill stands a chance of going up for a vote.
From there, if the committee comes to a favorable agreement on the measure, giving it the green light to go in front of the big dogs, the bill would then be voted forward to the full House of Representatives for yet another round of discussions.
As we mentioned before, there are literally thousands of bills introduced in Congress every year. It is up to the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate to decide which proposals take priority and which are to be cast out to linger in political purgatory.
This is where the marijuana debate has the greatest chance at getting jammed up. As it stands, both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—both Republicans—are opposed to marijuana legalization, which makes it highly unlikely that any pot-related bill that crosses their paths will be heard.
But let’s just say these Republican gatekeepers are not an issue—what happens next?
If the “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act” would happen to get pushed through by House Speaker Ryan, therefore being given the opportunity to go before the entire body for a debate, hundreds of federal lawmakers would then be responsible for determining how the bill shakes outs. It is likely that a number of amendments would be requested, all of which would first have to be approved by the Rules Committee.
In some cases, however, a proposed amendment (let’s just say a lawmaker wants to ban pot smoking) would be dealt with in what is called a “voice vote,” a situation where House members would call out “Yay” or Nay” to determine if there is enough support to support the change. If all goes off without a hitch, the bill would then be brought up for a vote—needing majority support (218 of 435) to move on to a series of debates in the Senate.
At this point, the Senate could either pass the bill, as is, make amendments of their own, or flat out refuse to give it any further consideration at all.
But if this chamber would only make simple modifications—let’s just say they only want to ban smoking if its not an FDA-approved product—the bill would then return to the House for concurrence.
Any major adjustments to the proposal would call for the appointment of a conference committee, which would be responsible for negotiating the two versions into a single agreement. This is where things could get really hairy, because if either the House or the Senate rejects the concept put forth by the committee, the bill is as good as dead.
Now, if the bill somehow makes it through all of this madness, which, once again, is a long shot, the final version would then be sent over to the president for either a signature or veto. The best-case scenario in this situation is President Trump would sign the “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act” into law without any further ado—making cannabis legal at the federal level.
He would have 10 days to put pen to paper. If no action is taken, the bill automatically becomes law. Then again, if the president slaps the proposal with a veto, the bill would either be considered dead or, depending on where the rejection falls in the legislative session, Congress could pull together a two-thirds override to bring it back to life. But we’re talking about a perfect storm.
Presently, the Republican Party dominates Congress, which means there is little to no chance that a marijuana-related measure will become a key issue in 2017, much less one that has the power to go the distance without grey-haired forces doing whatever it takes to bury it out behind the Capitol under six feet of Democratic frustration.
It has been said that once public opinion consistently resides in the 60-65 percent mark, which has been the case for the past couple of years in respect to marijuana legalization, Congress would have no choice but to give the subject some serious consideration. Sadly, most federal lawmakers have absolutely no interest in giving this issue the time of day.
According to NORML’s 2016 “Congressional Scorecard,” there are only about 20 federal lawmakers in office willing to speak out publicly in favor of changing marijuana laws in the United States. Yet, well over half of these folks are ranked as having an “average” attitude with respect to the issue.
That means there is a chance that we could see a bill like the “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act” gain some traction, if it could just get in front of the entire body. But we cannot see that happening—not this year.