WASHINGTON, D.C. — Marijuana advocates on Capitol Hill are ending the year on a mini-high note. They were able to keep in place most all protections for locally legal cannabis companies in a sweeping year-end spending bill, while also winning support from party leaders in both the House and Senate for a new provision that will extend federal financial aid for any student with a drug conviction on their record. But they also, once again, met some seemingly insurmountable roadblocks.
The provisions were tucked inside of the $2.3 trillion year end spending bill that’s now sailed through the House and Senate by wide, veto-proof and bipartisan margins. The measure also includes close to $900 billion intended to stimulate an economy dragging from coronavirus lock downs.
While marijuana wasn’t the focus of the act — the focus was keeping the government’s lights on while also extending enhanced unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans still sidelined from the workforce due to the pandemic — party leaders allowed some key marijuana provisions to make it through the months-long, grueling negotiations.
Supporters were able to keep in place congressionally mandated protections for locally legal medicinal marijuana operations, but by far the biggest win for proponents is the provision ending the requirement that students — or would-be students — divulge previous drug arrests in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) documents.
“Every single person in this country should be able to access and afford a quality higher education — and today we move substantially closer to that goal. For too long, students who are incarcerated, students who have been defrauded by for-profit colleges, and students who have drug-related offenses have been blocked from receiving federal aid,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a press release.
Murray is the most senior Democrat on the Senate education committee. And she hails from Washington state, which was one of the nation’s first two states to legalize recreational marijuana at the state level (Colorado was the other trailblazer in 2012) in spite of the lingering federal prohibition on the popular substance.
“I’m incredibly pleased that these students will finally be able to access aid and begin and continue their education,” Murray continued. “And as the pandemic and economic recession has made it even more difficult for students to afford and continue college, I’m proud we have taken important strides to make our financial aid process work better — especially for students experiencing homelessness, students formerly in foster care, and working families.”
It’s not all end of year cheer, though. Republican opponents were once again able to block officials here in the nation’s capital from setting up a regulatory system for the recreational marijuana residents overwhelmingly approved six years ago. That leaves residents of Washington locked in a grey market: We can grow up to six plants per person, and we can give cannabis away. But all sales are strictly forbidden by the biggest Big Brother of them all: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
GOP resistance to allowing D.C. officials to tax and regulate marijuana just like alcohol — like is done in Colorado, Oregon and Massachusetts, etc. — is basically the drug dealers bill of rights, because it’s enshrined the black market as a staple of Washington’s thriving marijuana scene.
Proponents also failed to convince GOP leaders to include a provision pushed by House Democrats that would have enabled marijuana companies — from medicinal dispensaries in Arkansas to recreational ones that will soon be established in 15 states — to finally access the U.S. financial system. That means, for now, these cannabis firms are federally mandated to operate as all-cash operations.
The measure did bring tidings of goodwill for the hemp industry. It extends a pilot program that was enacted in 2014 until 2022. While Mitch McConnell’s been a leading advocate for hemp — which thrives in his state’s soil — he continues to be the biggest thorn in marijuana advocate’s sides.
Still, with Sen. Kamala Harris as the incoming vice president, proponents are optimistic there’s a thawing afoot in Washington when it comes to the federal prohibition of marijuana.
Though no one’s popping champagne just yet, in part, because the incoming president, Joe Biden, has been no fan of marijuana or other popular substances over his decades long career.