Prison is not a happy or good place and too many Americans live there. This is not a particularly strong take, nor is it an original observation. It is significant, however, that enough American lawmakers who identify (and vote) as conservative have adopted enough of this reasonable worldview for Congress to pass the First Step Act, a criminal-justice reform bill championed by President Donald Trump and first son-in-law Jared Kushner that eases some drug-related sentencing guidelines and will lead to the early release of some federal prison inmates.
What at least one expert called the “largest federal effort to reduce prison populations ever” would probably be bigger news if it weren’t lost in a sea of government shutdowns, troop withdrawals and critiques of the chairman of the Federal Reserve, but so it goes with the 45th president. The First Step Act would likely have been bigger news if it did anything to reform American marijuana policy, which at the federal level is every day more of step with the states.
But the First Step Act does not do that. It would have, had a last-minute effort by Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner to tack on protections for state-legal marijuana operations from federal prosecution and lift restrictions on state-legal marijuana businesses to use banks succeeded.
It might always have been too big of a lift: Earlier efforts by Gardner and his bipartisan co-sponsors to get the STATES Act through the Senate failed. And “thanks” to his colleagues Mitch McConnell — the same Mitch McConnell who produced a “hemp pen” to sign the Farm Bill into law — and Chuck Grassley, who sneered at banking protections and federal prosecution protections as a “back door to legalization,” Gardner did not succeed at this, either.
The Senate did not allow the marijuana protections to be added to the First Step Act, one of the last bills passed by Congress in its lame duck session (and before all of its attention veered to the government shutdown over border wall funding). And so meaningful federal marijuana legislation will have to wait for the incoming Congress, where, in what might be a sign of good marijuana policy to come, Democrats will run the House of Representatives.
Will Trump sign pro-marijuana legislation to emerge from under future Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s gavel? According to Gardner, sure. The Denver Post reported that Gardner’s people believe that Trump “supports the idea.”
Trump might yet come around to such an idea, but consider: The STATES Act is not just Gardner’s, but also Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s. Warren and Trump, recall, are not exactly friendly, and inasmuch as Trump likes to win (and reasonable marijuana reforms would be popular, and a win) he also very much likes it when his bete noirs lose.
What else might guarantee its passage in the next term? A better sponsor, a better argument, less power for Grassley or for McConnell? Grassley has for years been a reliable roadblock for marijuana reform while serving on key committees in the Senate. The best hope may be someone like Pelosi, who has shown her willingness to engage with the president and her mettle to hold her own when she does.
TELL US, do you think Trump will adopt marijuana reforms?