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Legal Weed Is Gaining A Little Ground Among GOP Congressmen

U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio, is co-sponsoring a GOP plan that would regulate marijuana like alcohol and enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe cannabis treatments to veterans.
U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio, is co-sponsoring a GOP plan that would regulate marijuana like alcohol and enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe cannabis treatments to veterans.

Most congressional Democrats say it is time to end a federal prohibition on marijuana, and a growing number of Republicans agree.

"In a town that moves at a glacial pace, this is one [issue] that's picked up a lot of energy over time," said Rep. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio.

But that energy is not enough to change the law. Lawmakers don't see eye to eye on how to legalize cannabis, and businesses are stuck in the middle of the debate.

Both political parties have budding plans for legal weed

Joyce is co-sponsoring a GOP plan that would regulate marijuana like alcohol and enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe cannabis treatments to veterans.

Many Democrats like those ideas but want to go farther. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said the lucrative marijuana marketplace must welcome people of color — "people who were disproportionately locked up and [are] now being locked out of a multibillion-dollar industry."

Pressley is a co-sponsor of the MORE Act, which stands for Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement. It would clear some criminal records and impose a 5% to 8% sales tax. Some of the revenue would fund a special program for cannabis entrepreneurs from neighborhoods targeted in the war on drugs.

That's a deal breaker for Joyce, who argues what Democrats bill as a restorative justice program would be unfair to other business owners.

"You're going to tax the people who went into the industry and followed the laws of their state, and we're going to then wipe the slate clean for all the people who've been in the black market against them and then subsidize them to now get in business against [existing companies]? That doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense," he said.

Entrepreneur Leah Samura and private investor Sean Hope at the site of the Yamba Boutique in Harvard Square, which Samura plans to open this fall.
Robin Lubbock / WBUR
Entrepreneur Leah Samura and private investor Sean Hope at the site of the Yamba Boutique in Harvard Square, which Samura plans to open this fall.

Joyce noted that under his plan, states would be free to tax marijuana or launch social justice programs on their own. Some already have.

Leah Samura used an equity initiative in Massachusetts to get her license for a recreational marijuana store near the Harvard campus in Cambridge.

There's a certain irony to the location. When Samura opens Yamba Boutique this fall, she'll be selling weed at a former outpost for local cops.

"I think to be a Black woman in Harvard Square with a cannabis shop that used to be a police station is just an amazing opportunity," Samura said.

Bringing her business to the verge of opening has not been easy. Cannabis may be legal in Massachusetts, but the federal prohibition makes banks wary of issuing business loans. So, Samura turned to a private investor named Sean Hope. He's a successful attorney and real estate developer, but the new marijuana venture is a stretch even for him.

"I have essentially leveraged my family's worth in real estate to be able to participate," Hope said. "There's tremendous risk."

President Biden is still a weed skeptic

Lifting the federal cannabis ban could reduce the risk by easing bank lending. It also could bring the law in line with public opinion. In a recent Pew poll, 91% of American adults said marijuana should at least be legal for medical use, and 60% backed recreational use.

Plus, the vast majority of states have legalized medical or recreational marijuana already.

But a bipartisan deal doesn't look imminent, and it also remains unclear what President Biden, a cannabis skeptic, would be willing to sign.

"The president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a recent press briefing.

Psaki added Biden wants to remove federal criminal penalties for marijuana possession, but it is possible that even if a full legalization bill makes it through Congress and reaches his desk, the president might veto it.

Copyright 2021 WBUR