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Senate Bill Would Decriminalize Marijuana on the Federal Level

08/3/2021 Politics & Law
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This is an update to our ongoing coverage of Marijuana and the federal government.

The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.  Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the bill, which would end the federal prohibition of marijuana.

Senate Majority Leader Schumer said, “This is monumental because at long last we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs… I will use my clout as Majority Leader to make this [legislation] a priority in the Senate… It makes eminent sense to legalize marijuana.”

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat, New York) speaks to the media at an outdoor event

In states where marijuana has already been legalized, for the first time, businesses and individuals would be able to sell and consume cannabis without fear of federal prosecution. The bill would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. The federal government could then begin to regulate and tax it.

Main Goals of Legislation

The bill would allow states to make their own regulations for cannabis policies. State governments could choose to continue to make marijuana possession a criminal offense. However, states could not prohibit the transportation of legal cannabis products across state borders.

If passed, the bill would also require the expungement of records for anyone with a non-violent federal marijuana conviction. The expungements would take place within a year of the law being enacted.

Federal officials could no longer deny federal benefits to people who have used or possessed cannabis. In addition, discrimination against marijuana users seeking federal housing, food, or health benefits would no longer be allowed.

“The hypocrisy of this is that right here in the Capitol now people running for Congress, people running for Senate, people running for president of the United States readily admit that they’ve used marijuana,” Mr. Booker said. “But we have children in this country, people all over this country — our veterans, Black and brown people, low-income people — now bearing the stain of having a criminal conviction for doing things that half of the last four presidents admit to doing.”

Good for Veterans

Doctors with the VA (Veterans Affairs) would be able to recommend access to medical cannabis for their patients.  Cannabis regulation would be moved from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and to the AFT (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). This would be similar to how these agencies already regulate alcohol and tobacco.

A 10% federal excise tax would be imposed within the first year of the law taking effect. New tax revenue would be earmarked for restorative justice programs, intending to help communities affected by the federal prohibition on cannabis. It would also fund expanding medical research into cannabis, which is currently limited by its status as a controlled substance.

Cannabis-based companies in states where it is legal would have full access to the U.S. banking system and could also take federal tax deductions for business expenses.  Medical marijuana programs already operating would not be disrupted under the new bill.

Support from Americans

It won’t be easy to find support for the passage of the bill in the Senate, but most Americans already support the principles of the legislation. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have allowed medical marijuana, and 18 states plus D.C. already allow recreational use of marijuana by adults.

President Joe Biden has said he supports legalization, but five staffers with his administration were recently pushed out of their positions because of past marijuana use.

“It’s not just an idea whose time has come; it’s long overdue,” Mr. Schumer was quoted as saying at a news conference in the Capitol after the bill’s introduction. “We have all seen the agony of a young person arrested with a small amount of marijuana in his or her pocket. And because of the historical over-criminalization of marijuana, they have a very severe criminal record they have to live with their whole lives.”

Political Picture

The bill needs 60 votes to pass, meaning Mr. Schumer would need to find support from at least 10 Republicans. Unfortunately, this is an unlikely scenario. While some Republicans have supported the legalization of marijuana, most will oppose this bill. They would not support the restorative justice measures. And while some Republicans would like to see cannabis-based companies gain access to federal banking systems, other conservatives still fear the specters of addiction and substance abuse and call for more study of the long-term impact of cannabis use.

What Lies Ahead

While it’s true that almost 70% of Americans support the legalization of cannabis, our political leaders haven’t yet tuned in fully to this reality. Democrats feel this is an issue that will benefit them politically, especially with young voters.

A similar bill was passed by the House of Representatives last December, and it garnered some support from Republicans, but the bill died when the Congressional session ended. Leaders of the House plan to introduce an updated version of the bill soon.

The public can provide feedback on the draft legislation through September 1, 2021, at Cannabis_Reform@finance.senate.gov.

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