WASHINGTON (TND) — A long-awaited bill to federally legalize cannabis was introduced Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats.
The 296-page bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, has been under negotiation for a year after a draft text was released in 2021. It would remove cannabis from the controlled substances list, encourage states to create their own laws, expunges federal criminal records for non-violent marijuana offenses and creates a grant program for small businesses entering the industry in communities that have been damaged by past drug laws, among other things.
Schumer, D-N.Y., is the highest-ranking member of Congress to support federal reform of cannabis laws. Sens. Corey Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are also co-sponsors of the legislation.
“It's no longer a question of ‘if cannabis should be legal.’ The states are moving ahead, and not only do the overwhelming majority of American people support legalization, they now live in a state where some form of cannabis is legal,” Wyden said.
Public support for legalizing marijuana has grown in recent years and it has already been approved for recreational use in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Another 37 have medical marijuana legislation. A CBS poll in April found two-third of voters support legalizing marijuana, a similar amount to most other public polling on the issue.
Voters approved measures legalizing recreational pot in New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota in the 2020 election.
“As more states legalize cannabis and work towards reversing the many injustices the failed War on Drugs levied against Black, Brown, and low-income people, the federal government continues to lag woefully behind,” Booker said. “With strong restorative justice provisions for communities impacted by the drug war, support for small cannabis businesses, and expungement of federal cannabis offenses, this bill reflects long overdue, common sense drug policy.
Congress is years behind states and voters in its attitude towards marijuana due to many factors. There is a generational difference in attitudes, as younger voters are significantly more likely to support legalization than those who are older. The federal government has also had a history of taking a tough stance towards drug use and has included cannabis in with that.
Newfound prominence on the issue can also create some confusion amongst lawmakers who are hearing from advocates for different parts of the cannabis business.
To address what the lawmakers describe as a history of discriminatory enforcement of drug laws on minority communities, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development would create a grant program to address housing and economic development in areas “disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs.”
The Senate bill would also create funding for police to deal with illegal growing operations and addresses some of the safety issues brought up by some by requiring the Department of Transportation to develop a nationwide standard for drivers impaired by marijuana and restricting its marketing to minors.
The odds of passing the evenly split Senate are slim, but the bill can serve as a starting point for negotiations on how to move forward on regulations around marijuana into the future. Its path through the House is also unclear even though lawmakers passed a different bill legalizing marijuana earlier this year.
The House bill would expunge prior marijuana convictions and require resentencing hearings for people who are still serving sentences. It would also create a 5% sales tax on marijuana and related products, which would be used for job training programs, substance abuse treatment and loans for small businesses to get into the industry.
The Senate bill differs in tax rate and includes more regulations than the House bill, which has passed twice. It is also unclear if President Joe Biden would even sign it if it made it through both chambers, as he has been opposed to legalizing marijuana.
Biden’s opposition hasn’t stopped lawmakers from bringing bills to the floor or pressuring the White House to do more for people who have been imprisoned over marijuana charges.
Earlier this month, a group of Democratic senators sent a letter to Biden asking him to issue pardons to everyone who had been convicted of a nonviolent cannabis offense.
“The Administration’s failure to coordinate a timely review of its cannabis policy is harming thousands of Americans, slowing research, and depriving Americans of their ability to use marijuana for medical or other purposes,” the letter says. It was also sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Even if the Senate bill is unable to clear Congress this year, advocates are still hopeful it will serve as a step forward to the eventual legalization.
“Its introduction will now allow us to have substantive conversations in the Senate and there's already a hearing scheduled for next week in order to really start hashing out some of the various issues involved with cannabis policy reform,” said Morgan Fox, political director for the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. “So, it makes me very optimistic that we'll be able to get some sort of cannabis policy reform legislation passed this year beyond the research bill, which is very close to being sent to the president's desk.”
Chris Lindsey, director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project, said the introduction of a bill in the Senate backed by Democratic leadership is historic in the advancement of federal cannabis reform.
“It is significant that we have a bill that’s this broad, that's this carefully considered being presented by the leadership in the Senate,” Lindsey said.
A key part of the bill is giving marijuana businesses like dispensaries access to banking and traditional lending services other businesses can get. Without access to capital, prospective entrepreneurs have a difficult time starting a business even if marijuana has been legalized in their state.
“It’s a public safety issue, but it's also an issue of economic competitiveness in the market, because a lot of these — particularly smaller businesses — don't have access to capital the way that some of the bigger businesses do, and an inability to be able to get traditional lending is a huge hurdle for a lot of these small businesses, so they end up having to borrow from friends and family or leverage their houses or things like that,” Fox said. “It puts them at a serious disadvantage.”
Marijuana businesses are also frequently targeted for break-ins due to the high amount of cash that can be on hand, as many cannot accept payment through credit or debit cards. Access to traditional financial systems could also ease the expenses for businesses, which could make the product more affordable for consumers.
The Senate Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, chaired by Booker, will hold a hearing on legalizing marijuana on Tuesday.