Three Democratic lawmakers intent on reforming the nation’s cannabis policy are seeking input on a federal marijuana legalization bill with a letter sent to their colleagues in the Senate on Thursday. The letter written by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York, Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon and New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker invites fellow senators “into the drafting process as we work to finalize this legislation.”
“In order to appropriately address such a nuanced issue, we respectfully request the input, advice and guidance of Chairs and Ranking Members of relevant committees as well as senators who have dealt with the challenges and realities of legalization in their own states,” the Democratic senators wrote in their letter.
Schumer, Wyden and Booker noted that 37 states have now passed laws to legalize cannabis in some form, writing that “Alaska, Montana, Arizona, and others have followed Colorado, Washington, and Oregon in reforming their outdated cannabis laws. Even voters in a state as conservative as South Dakota have demonstrated their support for legalization.”
“As more and more states move to legalize cannabis for both adult and medical use, the federal government has an important role to play. Hundreds of millions of Americans live in states that have legalized cannabis in some form while it remains illegal at the federal level,” the three senators added. “This discrepancy leads to confusion and uncertainty and raises significant questions around criminal justice reform, economic development and small business growth, and public health and safety, all of which we believe require some type of federal answer.”
Democratic Draft Bill Released Last Year
The three Democrats have all been working to reform the nation’s marijuana laws with new legislation. Last year, they shared what they characterized as a “discussion draft” of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). The 30-page document detailed several areas of federal cannabis regulation that are not consistent with marijuana policy changes made at the state level and established a comprehensive plan to federally legalize marijuana. The legislation would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and establish a framework for the expungement of federal cannabis convictions.
The measure also establishes a federal tax on marijuana products, with revenue dedicated to grant programs designed to invest in communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs. The CAOA would also strip authority over marijuana regulation from the Drug Enforcement Administration and shift most responsibilities to the Food and Drug Administration, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau also assuming some regulatory duties.
At a recent event in New York, Schumer said that he would formally introduce the legislation as soon as April, noting that he had made cannabis reform a top priority as Senate majority leader.
“As majority leader, I can set priorities,” Schumer said. “This is a priority for me.”
The senators noted in Thursday’s letter that they have received more than 1,800 comments from stakeholders on the CAOA proposal so far, “many with substantive and detailed policy recommendations.” The senators added that in the weeks ahead many of the comments will be incorporated into the draft of the legislation to reflect the views and voices of as many interested parties as possible. They closed the letter with an invitation to their colleagues in the Senate to join them in the process.
“We would deeply appreciate your willingness to share your expertise on the intersections between your committees’ jurisdictions, your states’ experiences, and comprehensive cannabis reform and invite you to join the process of perfecting this legislation,” they added. “We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue with you in the weeks ahead.”
But Brookings Institution senior fellow John Hudak recently told Bloomberg Government that the chance of passing comprehensive marijuana legalization does not appear strong.
“They see this as a real politically winning issue not just for themselves but also for the party as they approach the midterms,” Hudak said of Democrats in Congress. “But the challenge, even for the idea of bringing the bill up for debate, is that the votes just aren’t there.”
Some Democrats believe that separate bills that focus on different aspects of marijuana policy reform are the best route to making progress on the issue with Republicans and President Joe Biden. One bill, the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act from Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, would allow financial institutions to offer banking services to cannabis businesses operating legally under state law. Last week, the House of Representatives approved the legislation for the sixth time, adding it to a bill designed to improve economic competitiveness with China.
“We know the president has been somewhat reluctant on this subject, so the incremental approach that we talked about earlier is probably a better one to present to the administration,” Perlmutter said last week.