Now that President-elect Joe Biden is set to step into the Oval Office, many in the industry are wondering how Biden’s cabinet will affect cannabis policy. Currently, the Democratic party controls both chambers of Congress with a narrow majority. Hopefully, complete control in Congress could be the catalyst for legalizing cannabis.
What’s on the Docket?
Last year, the Democrat-controlled House made history by approving the SAFE Banking and MORE Acts. Both measures would have made huge strides in the legal industry. The STATES Act was also considered, which would give states the right to handle cannabis policy without federal interference.
During the first term, Congress has the power to go all the way with one or more of these momentous initiatives. However, after approval, it’s up to various government agencies managed by Biden’s cabinet choices to handle the implementation. Here’s which government agencies would handle the measures:
- The SAFE Act would be regulated by the Treasury Department
- The MORE Act would be handled by various agencies including the Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Labor, Commerce, and Justice
- The STATES Act would need support from the Justice Department and maybe Commerce
Biden’s Cabinet Picks
While the future of cannabis reform is hard to predict, we can make an educated guess of where cannabis policy will head by looking at Biden’s cabinet picks. By looking at their previous stances, we can get a clear picture of how they will shape legislation.
Attorney General’s Cannabis Policy
Almost anyone would be better than Donald Trump’s first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who took aim at the cannabis industry during his brief stint in the White House. One of the most striking moves from Sessions was rescinding the Obama-era Cole Memo which gave states legal protection from federal intervention.
Biden nominated Merrick Garland as his Attorney General. As an Attorney General, he would have a significant say in implementing the administration’s policy and cannabis law enforcement.
In terms of figuring out where Garland’s stance is on legalization, we don’t have much to go on. During Garland’s tenure as a circuit judge for the Court of Appeals District of Columbia, he hasn’t publicly stated his views on legalization.
However, in a 2012 case, Americans for Safe Access v Drug Enforcement Administration, found Garland (and the majority of the judges) siding with the DEA. Garland argued that the DEA presented substantial evidence that supported the agency’s final decision not to reschedule cannabis. It’ll be a waiting game to see if Garland has had a change of heart.
Treasury Secretary Cannabis Policy
For his Treasury Secretary, Biden chose Janet Yellen, former Federal Reserve Chair. Yellen would play a pivotal role in developing financial regulations for cannabis businesses. However, Yellen has not been a vocal supporter of cannabis legalization.
In her tenure as Chair of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018, the agency denied Denver Colorado’s Fourth Corner Credit Union the application for a master account. The nonprofit cooperative formed by state-licensed manufacturers was forced to remain a cash-only business, like the rest of the industry.
Secretary of Labor
Regulating labor and employment, Biden’s Secretary of Labor pick, Marty Walsh, is the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts. He has expressed anti-cannabis views but has recently softened his stance on the issue. During the 2016 fight to legalize cannabis in Massachusetts, Walsh actively opposed it.
In 2019, he noted that his opinions on cannabis have not changed. However, he agreed that the legalization in the state strengthened his commitment to creating a regulatory framework that allows those most affected by the war on drugs to have plenty of opportunities in the industry.
Most importantly, Walsh has been a strong proponent of union labor. Before becoming Mayor of Boston, Walsh was the President of the Laborers Union Local 223. In 2010, he was elected as Secretary-Treasurer and General Agent of the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council, a broader union organization. In 2011, he became the head of the Boston Building Trades.
Former Agriculture Secretary in the Obama Administration, Tom Vilsack, is a promising cabinet choice. Under the Obama administration, Vilsack was a strong proponent of growing the hemp industry.
We must also consider his actions as Governor of Iowa. During his stint in power, Vilsack adopted the National Governors Association policies on illegal drugs. Under the policies, cannabis policy reforms would never be considered over enforcement.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo was picked to lead the Commerce Department. In her state, she was a strong proponent of marijuana legalization and included a recreational measure in her 2020 budget. However, the measure would have banned home cultivation, placed a cap on THC, and established state-run stores.
Raimondo has been a vocal supporter of a state-run program since it’s seen as the best and safest way to bring in state revenue and control the industry.
Since the Department of Commerce is tasked with promoting national economic growth and job creation, progressing in cannabis policy would improve all of these aspects. Cannabis legalization would bring in more federal, state, and local revenue, which is much needed during the pandemic.
Department of Interior
Biden’s Department of Interior pick, Deb Haaland, would become the first Native American to hold the position. This department is in charge of handling and improving the nation’s lands, water, wildlife, and energy resources. Apart from sustaining treaties with tribal nations, the department could play a pivotal role in helping the USDA develop cultivation regulations and managing legalization on Tribal lands.
As a representative of New Mexico, Haaland voted in support of the MORE Act last year. She also introduced an amendment protecting cannabis policies on tribal lands. The amendment would prevent the federal government from using funds to interfere with their reforms.
Health and Human Services
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has been a supporter of the state’s legalization. Leading the HHS, he could oversee the rescheduling of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act. He has actively proposed that the federal government get with the times and start progressing on cannabis policy.
As Attorney General in California, his office has prosecuted some illegal cultivation cases citing damage to wildlife habitats, water poisoning, and their effects on local communities. In his Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) program, he helped remove 1.1 million illegally cultivated plants.
In addition, as a representative in the House from 1993 to 2017, he supported many spending bill amendments protecting state cannabis laws. He also supported amendments that would allow the VA to recommend medical cannabis to veterans, supported the industrial hemp and CBD markets, give access to financial services for cannabis businesses, and hemp research.
Overall, Biden’s cabinet picks are a significant improvement over the previous administration. While no single agency head is completely gung-ho on legalization, pressure from Congress and state legalization could pressure these agencies to follow the people’s will. We’ll have to wait and see whether they see the promise of a green future.