The U.S. House of Representatives officially has a new speaker: Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA). A review of his marijuana-related votes reveals a new leader who has consistently opposed reform, including on incremental issues like cannabis banking and making it easier to conduct scientific research on the plant.
It took the Republican majority about three weeks to elect a speaker after multiple GOP conference nominees failed to amass the required votes to ascend to the position. Johnson was nominated just hours after House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN), who has backed cannabis banking and other reforms, was selected and then dropped out on Tuesday following pushback from former President Donald Trump and his allies. Then, on Wednesday, the lesser-known Johnson secured 220 votes on the House floor to become the next speaker.
The congressman entered Congress in 2017, though sizing up his record is more difficult in light of his atypically high absence during roll call votes. But for the votes that he did cast on cannabis issues, there is a clear pattern: he’s again even modest, bipartisan reform proposals.
Importantly, Johnson, who serves as vice chair of the Republican conference, voted against bills to safeguard banks that work with state-licensed marijuana businesses in 2019 and 2021. That could come into play sooner than later, as Senate leadership works to advance the Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation (SAFER) Banking Act that cleared committee last month to the floor before potentially transmitting it to the House.
Under former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), leadership wasn’t an especially significant concern for advocates and stakeholders, even under the GOP-controlled chamber. McCarthy had voted in favor of marijuana banking reform, so it was expected that he would not stand in the way of its advancement. How Johnson might approach the issue is less certain.
“In the words of John Boehner, there is a tradition of speakers who evolve on the issue of cannabis,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement following the speaker vote on Wednesday. “While I do not know if this is going to happen anytime soon with Speaker Johnson, his commitment to an open process and the growing support we have for SAFE Banking and the Veterans Equal Access Act makes me optimistic that progress can be made this Congress.”
While Johnson did cosponsor a coronavirus relief bill in 2020 that included the text of the SAFE Banking Act, he was among the chorus of Republican members who blasted Democrats for attaching the cannabis language to the broader legislation.
“The bill mentions the word ‘jobs’ only 52 times—but listen, it mentions ‘cannabis’ 68 times,” he said in 2020. “I’m not being flippant here, but we’re wondering if the staff that wrote this might have been high when they put the pen to paper.”
Nancy Pelosi’s liberal wishlist uses the word “cannabis” more than “jobs” and “hire.” Legitimate question: Was the staff responsible for this legislation high when they wrote it? pic.twitter.com/8e9k1mN6FV
— Rep. Mike Johnson (@RepMikeJohnson) May 15, 2020
He was fairly hung-up on the concern on social media, too, posting about it multiple times from his official and campaign accounts, even suggesting that the lawmakers and staffers who wrote the legislation “were high” at the time.
In Pelosi’s 1,800-page bill, the word “jobs” appears 52 times, but the word “cannabis” appears 68 times. It makes you wonder if the people who wrote it were high. https://t.co/Ya2BTpR5WT
— Mike Johnson (@MikeJohnson) May 15, 2020
At a time when small business are closing daily & Americans continue to lose their jobs, what’s Speaker Pelosi’s priority?
Unfortunately, it’s not securing critical aid… it’s marijuana.
Her first aid package mentioned “marijuana” more than “jobs” & now this. This is nonsense. https://t.co/Ivxi84is9A
— Rep. Mike Johnson (@RepMikeJohnson) December 1, 2020
Johnson also criticized House Democrats in December 2020 for scheduling a vote on a marijuana legalization bill amid the pandemic. Despite his criticism, however, he declined to show up to cast a vote on the proposal. He also did not vote on the legislation when it passed the House a second time last year.
For months now, Democrats have refused to work with Republicans to provide critically needed COVID relief for millions of Americans suffering from the pandemic.
This week, Pelosi & the Democrats scheduled votes instead on… a marijuana bill and a ban on keeping tigers as pets.
— Rep. Mike Johnson (@RepMikeJohnson) December 3, 2020
The newly elected speaker voted against a spending bill amendment to protect all state cannabis program from federal intervention in 2019, and then he did not show up to vote on the measure in 2020. Johnson voted against a bill to streamline cannabis research last year, which was later signed into law by President Joe Biden, and he did not participate in a vote on an amendment to prevent security clearance denials for people over past marijuana use alone.
Also in 2019 and 2021, the congressman voted against amendments to ease restrictions on carrying out studies on Schedule I substances like marijuana and psychedelics or to express support for legalizing them. He further voted in favor of a 2021 anti-reform measure to remove protections for universities that research cannabis.
Here’s a breakdown of Johnson’s voting record on cannabis legislation:
Y = yes vote; N = no vote; NV = not voting
Certain advocates have tried to temper concerns about the impact of having a speaker opposed to marijuana reform helm the chamber, pointing out that legislation like cannabis banking could advance as part of broader vehicles and expressing doubts that leadership would proactively seek to undercut such proposals.
But for advocates, the fact that the House opted for a consistent opponent of marijuana, as opposed to the multiple candidates who’ve previously voted in favor of cannabis banking or research measures, comes as a disappointment coupled with open questions about the path forward.