Can the Republican House pass cannabis reform? Don Murphy thinks so, and he’s fighting to make it happen

Published on January 30, 2023
For most Republican lawmakers in Congress, Don Murphy is the trusted voice of cannabis reform. If progress is made on SAFE Banking and other bills, Murphy will be leading the way. (Photo: Don Murphy)

With the GOP running the House, America’s top conservative legalization advocate takes the lead on Capitol Hill. Here’s what Don Murphy sees as a winning strategy.

Don Murphy might not be the most high-profile cannabis legalization lobbyist in Washington, but he may be the one of the best positioned for the moment.

During the 2022 midterm elections, the GOP narrowly won control of the US House of Representatives. With Republicans now running the House, Murphy—a veteran conservative lobbyist, Republican, and former Maryland state lawmaker—steps into 2023 as one of the most influential cannabis legalization changemakers on Capitol Hill.

In past years, Murphy prowled the halls of Congress on behalf of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), acting as a one-man liaison to the conservative side of the aisle. Nowadays he’s working on behalf of the Marijuana Leadership Campaign, the advocacy organization created by former MPP co-founder Rob Kampia.

Liberty, Jobs, and Freedom: How Cannabis Became a Conservative Issue

Murphy has plenty on his plate in the opening weeks of the new term. Two GOP House members have already reintroduced marijuana-related bills that failed to gain traction in past sessions: Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) has a bill to allow medical marijuana patients to possess firearms, and Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) has a bill to prevent military veterans from losing their benefits if they enroll as medical marijuana patients. 

More bills—from SAFE Banking to the States Reform Act—could also get re-introduced over the coming weeks and months.

We spoke with Murphy recently about winning strategies to make progress on cannabis reform with the Republican House. Read on to learn why he thinks GOP lawmakers can support cannabis reform, what progress he believes the House can make this session, how to get SAFE Banking over the finish line, and more. 

Cannabis gets nothing from Congress as session draws to a close

SAFE Banking: It’s a law-and-order bill

Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) now becomes a prominent figure in cannabis reform, as the Republican lead sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act. (AP Photo)

Leafly: Let’s talk about the SAFE Banking Act, which seems to have the most chance of passage with bipartisan support. My senator here in Montana, Steve Daines, a Republican, is a lead sponsor of SAFE. He’s framed it as a law-and-order policy.

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Don Murphy: On SAFE, small businesses and frontline employees are getting literally killed while we mess around in this comprehensive effort to figure out who gets the spoils in a post-prohibition world.

Today’s GOP cannabis caucus is now led by law-and-order Republicans, not free-thinking libertarians like Dana Rohrabacher and Ron Paul.

You have these red-state Republicans—they’re not from Colorado, they’re not from Washington State. They’re not people you would expect [to advocate for cannabis reform]. Like, Rep. Dave Joyce [R-OH] is a former prosecutor. These are guys who aren’t the usual suspects. They’re not hippies. They’re not surfers. They’re not Dana Rohrabacher.

Now, in his day, Dana Rohrabacher was very important. And the fact that he carried marijuana reform to the point that he did was amazing. We wouldn’t be where we are without him. But we’re beyond that kind of sponsor. We don’t need the Ron Pauls of the world, the Dana Rohrabachers of the world. We are being led by law-and-order people. That’s a great thing that should not be lost.

Dana Rohrabacher’s Last Stand: California Conservative’s Fate Could Hinge on Cannabis Vote

GOP cannabis reformers are also primary winners

U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) became the leading GOP voice on cannabis reform in 2021. One year later, she cruised to victories in primary and general elections—and showed other Republicans that cannabis isn’t a career-killer. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Leafly: Rep. Nancy Mace (R-NC) is another example of a GOP member becoming a leader in cannabis reform.

Murphy: She’s the new Exhibit A that you can be a vocal supporter of cannabis reform and still win a Republican primary. That’s always been the big problem for Republicans.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) showed that GOP members can lead on cannabis reform and not be penalized in their next primary.

Every time somebody puts up a poll saying, oh, 90% of the American public support cannabis reform, 60% of Republicans support cannabis reform. I’m like, yeah, but if polls mattered, it’d be legal already. They don’t matter. And the reason they don’t matter is because the 40% of Republicans who oppose it, they all vote in Republican primaries.

Nancy Mace and Alex Mooney prove to Republicans that you can stick your toe in the weed water and not get bitten off. And not be challenged in a primary because of it.

But let’s be honest, nobody voted for Dave Joyce or Nancy Mace because they were the weed lady or the weed guy, right? But this is what they’re working on. This is what they’re known for. 

Meet Congress’ new Republican cannabis caucus

‘Republicans are now expected to deliver’

Democrats couldn’t pass any significant cannabis reform bills when they controlled the House. Now incoming Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is expected to deliver with his party in charge. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Leafly: What do you make of Rep. Mooney’s bill, regarding firearm possession, and Rep. Steube’s bill, regarding military veterans? Will they fare better in the 118th Congress than they have in past sessions?

Murphy: I think these bills will fare better because now the Republican party is in the majority. When you’re in the majority, that’s the good news. The bad news is you’re expected to deliver. The expectations are higher when you hold the gavel. 

‘Democrats controlled everything in Congress for two years, and we have nothing to show for it’ in terms of cannabis reform.

That’s why I took a stick to [Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer and company for their failure to pass SAFE or anything else [related to cannabis]. 

Democrats controlled everything for two years, and we have nothing to show for it. This nonsense of blaming Mitch McConnell is just unwarranted finger-pointing. It’s scapegoating.

Look, I’m a partisan—but I’m an equal opportunity critic. When my guys don’t deliver on something that they say they’re going to do, then that’s on them. So at minimum, I would expect hearings for [the Mooney and Steube] bills.

House Republicans get early jump on marijuana bills for gun owners and veterans

Bills could make it out of committee

Leafly: Is there enough support at the committee level?

Murphy: I think there’s a pretty high level of support among subcommittee members for these bills. For example, Mooney’s bill will go to Judiciary, and everybody knows that [Judiciary Committee Chairman] Jim Jordan’s not a big fan of [cannabis legalization]. And [Rep.] Andy Biggs [R-AZ], who is the chair of the Crime subcommittee—where Mooney’s Bill went in the 116th Congress—is not a big fan either

But there are members of that subcommittee: Tom Massie [R-KY], and Steube, and Victoria Spartz [R-IN], and Scott Fitzgerald [R-WI], who all voted for SAFE Banking and would likely support this. 

So I’m going to start working that crowd to get them on board as co-sponsors. And the beauty of [Mooney’s bill is], it’s not a marijuana bill, it’s a gun bill, if you’re a Republican. 

If you’re a liberal Democrat, this is a marijuana bill. Just as SAFE banking to me is not a cannabis bill about banking, it’s a banking bill about cannabis. So I sell it that way. It’s a law-and-order bill.

Veterans are key to moving progress forward

Military veterans have long been in the forefront of the fight to legalize medical marijuana. In this March 8, 2016, photo, Air Force veteran Michael Krawitz, executive director for Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, poses for a photo beside a mobile veterans clinic at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs center in Greensboro, NC. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

Leafly: What’s your take on Rep. Steube’s bill to facilitate veterans’ access to medical marijuana?

Murphy: There’s a fair number of good Republicans on the Veterans Affairs Committee who have voted for SAFE Banking in the past. How do you vote for SAFE Banking and then not support veterans access?

Veterans are the key to moving this forward for Republicans. Veterans and bankers and gun owners. We have to come at this from the conservative side of the aisle. 

‘If you’re a Republican, you’re not going to get sold’ on cannabis reform ‘from people who are hard-left progressives.’

If you’re a Republican, it’s not that you don’t like pot, you just don’t like pot people. You don’t get sold this idea to do the right thing from people who are hard-left progressives.

I used to think drug policy reform was good policy and great politics. It ain’t great politics because the left will always hate you. They’ll just hate you less [if you support cannabis reform]. Veterans, small business people, gun owners—they are people that vote in our primaries, right?

It’s one thing to legalize marijuana in Oregon. That’s not a heavy lift. But with each passing election, the low-hanging fruit gets higher and higher. And you cannot send progressives into red states. I don’t know what happened in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arkansas [in the 2022 elections]. 

Not only do they see you a mile away, they probably smell you a mile away. I’m not joking: I smell these people coming through the halls in Congress and I’m like, you’re not helping.

It’s nine o’clock in the morning and you smell like [weed] and you’re hurting the cause. I’m like, stay home, write a letter to the editor. We don’t need you here.

SAFE Banking ‘must start in the Senate, not the House’

Leafly: You’ve referred to SAFE Banking a few times in our conversation. How do you think it gets done this session?

Murphy: In 2023, SAFE Banking cannot start in the House. If you are the House Republicans, you’re like, I’m not sending this bill over to the Senate for the eighth time only to have it die. Let them send it over. They’re still controlled by Democrats. The House is the heavier lift now. 

I want Senator Daines to find himself two [new] Republican co-sponsors to prove to the world that they have the votes. That could be Mike Lee [R-UT], that could be Tommy Tuberville [R-AL], who is on record saying he supported it if we had the votes. There’s no doubt in my mind we had the votes. 

If Daines drops the bill with 10 Republican [co-sponsors] on Democrat Sherrod Brown’s desk and basically dares him not to hold a hearing, well, then the Democrats are exposed.

They have to do something. Maybe they start with SAFE as it was sort of being negotiated, [with the GRAM Act and HOPE Act being included] right? Like, if Daines starts with SAFE, period, that would probably not be viewed well by Democrats. 

When it passes the Senate, it will have to be passed in a form that House Republicans can accept. It can’t be loaded up like a Christmas tree with all kinds of stuff. It cannot be some big social justice experiment.

[Last session], you had a Democrat president, Democrats controlled the Senate, Democrats controlled the House, and we got nothing. So now, with all due respect, step aside, it’s time to try it a different way. You know, you don’t win football games by throwing eighty yard passes from the 20. You don’t throw the bomb. You grind it out.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.
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