Much attention is being focused on how the campaign for the White House could impact the marijuana law reform movement, but a handful of races for U.S. Senate seats could also result in dramatically changed opportunities for cannabis legislation in Congress.
Here’s a breakdown of the how some of the most important matchups could affect marijuana policy, listed in alphabetical order by state:
Incumbent Sen. John McCain (R) hasn’t taken action to advance marijuana policy reform, though he did say at one point in response to a voter’s question that, “Maybe we should legalize. We’re certainly moving that way as far as marijuana is concerned.”
Likely Democratic opponent Ann Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, voted on at least two occasions for amendments to protect state medical marijuana laws from federal interference. She also voted for a broader amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with any state marijuana laws, including ones that legalize recreational use. However, she also sponsored two versions of legislation to prevent people from using or withdrawing food stamp benefits at marijuana dispensaries.
McCain is also facing a number of primary challengers, including State Sen. Kelli Ward, who sponsored legislation in 2014 to legalize industrial hemp cultivation in Arizona. She also co-sponsored 2013 legislation clarifying that colleges and universities in the state are allowed to conduct research on medical marijuana.
Incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio (R) announced during the course of his now-defunct presidential campaign that he would not run for reelection to the Senate, though he has been publicly flirting in recent weeks with reconsidering that decision.
Rubio was one of only a handful of presidential candidates this year to consistently call for federal marijuana laws to be enforced, even in states that have opted for legalization.
The two leading Democrats vying to replace Rubio, on the other hand, support marijuana law reform. Congressmen Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy have both consistently voted for House amendments to prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. And last year, they both supported an amendment to protect all state marijuana laws, including ones covering recreational use, from federal attacks.
Murphy has co-sponsored standalone legislation protecting people complying with state marijuana laws from federal drug laws and allowing military veterans to get medical marijuana recommendations through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He also signed on to bills to allow marijuana businesses to bank and be treated more fairly under the tax code.
Polling in the Democratic primary has gone back and forth between Grayson and Murphy.
There are a lot of candidates in the Republican primary, including Congressmen Ron DeSantis and David Jolly. DeSantis has voted for the amendments to protect both medical cannabis and recreational marijuana state laws from federal interference, while Jolly has been opposed.
Republican polling has generally shown Jolly leading, with at least one recent survey finding real estate developer Carlos Beruff besting both House members. If Rubio changes his mind and decides to run for reelection, it would dramatically change the dynamics of the race.
Both the Democratic and Republican primaries take place on August 30.
Incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk (R) has consistently voted against marijuana law reform measures in the Appropriations Committee and on at least two occasions has spoken out against amendments to increase military veterans’ access to medical marijuana. “We do not have too few veterans who are high right now,” he said before one vote. “I don’t see that as a problem in our country.”
Democratic challenger Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, on the other hand, has voted in favor of House amendments to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference and for an amendment to stop the Department of Justice from interfering with any state marijuana law, including those covering recreational use.
Polling shows that race is probably Democrats’ most likely Senate seat pickup this year, with Duckworth consistently leading Kirk.
The race in Iowa probably represents reformers’ most important opportunity to oust a staunch marijuana prohibitionist from the Senate in 2016. Incumbent Sen. Charles Grassley (R) chairs the Judiciary Committee and has long been one of Congress’s most ardent and vocal opponents of legalization. He has blocked bipartisan medical cannabis legislation from getting a hearing or a vote and has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration over its approach of generally respecting state marijuana laws.
In November, Grassley faces off against Democrat Patty Judge, Iowa’s former lieutenant governor and secretary of agriculture.
While Judge doesn’t appear to have been especially vocal about marijuana laws one way or the other, replacing Grassley would be an enormous win for pro-legalization forces.
There doesn’t seem to be much if any polling specifically on the Grassley-Judge race yet, but most observers are currently rating the seat as safe for Republicans. That could change, however, if the dynamics of the contentious presidential race end up resulting in a Democratic wave election that impacts down-ballot races.
Bill Piper of Drug Policy Action told Marijuana.com in an email that advocates believe they have the votes in the Senate to approve broad medical cannabis legislation but that Grassley “has been unwilling to bring it or any other marijuana reform up for vote.”
Calling Grassley “the main obstacle to reform in the Senate,” Piper said he is “facing the toughest re-election in a long time. If he loses, or if Democrats take back the Senate (depriving him of chairmanship), the prospect for marijuana reform greatly improves.”
A number of candidates are competing to replace retiring Sen. David Vitter (R). Most notably is Rep. John Fleming (R), one of a dwindling handful of House members who consistently make a point of speaking out against marijuana law reform whenever possible.
Piper, of DPA, told Marijuana.com that the contest is “the only senate race that keeps me up at night” because of its potential of sending a new ardent prohibitionist to the chamber. Due to Senate rules, just one member can hold things up and cause considerable problems for reform efforts.
“There are only a handful of old school reefer madness legislators willing to fight left in Congress,” Piper said. “Fleming is one of them.”
Also running in the primary is Congressman Charles Boustany (R), who also consistently votes against marijuana law reform efforts but isn’t nearly as vocal about it as Fleming is.
If no candidate wins an outright majority in the November 8 “jungle primary” (in which all candidates appear on the same ballot regardless of party), the top two candidates will then face off in a December 3 runoff election.
Polling in the contest is sparse, but it is widely expected that a Republican will come out on top.
A number of Democrats and Republicans are seeking to replace retiring Sen. Harry Reid (D).
Notably, Republican Congressman Joe Heck has voted in favor of House amendments to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference and for an amendment to stop the Department of Justice from interfering with any state marijuana law, including those covering recreational use. He also co-sponsored standalone legislation to improve access to medical cannabis and to allow military veterans to get medical marijuana recommendations through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He also signed on to bills to allow marijuana businesses to bank and be treated more fairly under the tax code.
Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, a former Nevada attorney general, admitted that she “tried marijuana once or twice at parties” but also voted against the state’s 2000 ballot initiative that legalized medical cannabis. On broader reform, she said, “I do not see a benefit in our state in legalizing marijuana.” (Her husband is a security advisor for a group of medical cannabis dispensaries in Arizona.)
The primary elections will be held on June 14.
General election polling mostly shows Heck leading.
Incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R) has admitted to using marijuana in the past but says legalization is “is the wrong message to send.” In 2003, while serving in the House, he voted against an amendment to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference.
Democratic opponent Ted Strickland, the state’s former governor who also previously served in Congress, has called medical cannabis a “no-brainer” and said “decriminalization of marijuana should occur.” He was a little more guarded about his position on a 2015 Ohio ballot initiative that would have legalized marijuana and allowed a small group of rich investors to control commercial cultivation. “If this was a straight marijuana legalization vote, I would vote yes,” he said. “I am troubled by the monopoly aspect of it.”
As a House member, Strickland voted in favor of the 2003 amendment to protect state medical marijuana laws from Justice Department interference.
Polling shows the Portman-Strickland race to be close, with some seasoned observers calling it a tossup.
Incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R), while serving in the U.S. House, voted against a 2003 floor amendment to protect state medical marijuana laws from federal interference. But last June, he cheered an Obama administration move to remove a roadblock in the way of more medical cannabis research.
Democratic challenger Katie McGinty is a former chief of staff to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who recently signed a medical marijuana bill into law. For her own part, McGinty “supports legalizing medical marijuana and supports decriminalization,” a spokesperson said this year. But in 2013, in response to a voter’s question, she said, “I am not for legalization of marijuana.” In the same appearance, however, McGlinty also said she opposed even medical cannabis, so it’s possible that her position on full legalization will similarly evolve.
Polling shows Toomey ahead, but some observers label the race a tossup.
A number of strong marijuana policy reform supporters are running for re-election this year in races they are expected to win handily. For example, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is a leading original co-sponsor of a comprehensive medical cannabis bill and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has been a consistent voice in support of reform as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
And other races seem sure to send new reformers to the Senate. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) is expected to win the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, also a Democrat. Van Hollen has co-sponsored a number of marijuana reform bills in the House and consistently voted for similar floor amendments.
In California, retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) will be replaced by either current state Attorney General Kamala Harris or Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats. Harris once laughed off a reporter’s marijuana question rather than answer, but now says she supports legalization and that it “is inevitable it is going to happen.” In the House, Sanchez has consistently voted in favor of amendments to protect state medical marijuana laws from federal interference and supported an amendment last year to extend the protection to all state marijuana laws, including those allowing recreational use. Polls show Harris leading.
Taken together, the above races will give marijuana policy observers a lot to watch out for on November 8 in addition to the results of the presidential race and the cannabis initiatives that will appear on a number of state ballots.
Photo Courtesy of karen roach.