Senate leaders are introducing sweeping legislation Thursday meant to lift federal prohibitions on marijuana more than 50 years after Congress made the drug illegal.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act would decriminalize weed on the federal level and allow states to set their own marijuana laws without fear of punishment from Washington.
The bill has been a long time coming — Schumer, along with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) proposed a discussion draft more than a year ago — and its odds of passing in this Senate are slim. But the legislation will shape the conversation around cannabis legalization going forward and portions of it are likely to find their way into other bills that could pass before the end of the year.
The legislation includes both Democratic and Republican priorities: It expunges federal cannabis-related records and creates funding for law enforcement departments to fight illegal cannabis cultivation. It also establishes grant programs for small business owners entering the industry who are from communities disproportionately hurt by past drug laws, requires the Department of Transportation to research and develop a nationwide standard for marijuana-impaired driving, and restricts the marketing of cannabis to minors.
Schumer has been the highest-ranking champion of marijuana legalization in Washington, labeling it a top priority over the last two years. It was one of the issues he said Democrats would tackle if they took back the Senate in 2020.
“When a state like South Dakota votes by referendum to legalize, you know something is out there,” Schumer told POLITICO last year. “The American people started speaking sort of with a clear message. More than two-to-one, that they want the law changed.”
While marijuana legalization has spread rapidly across the U.S. over the past decade, Capitol Hill has not transitioned as quickly. Nineteen states now allow anyone at least 21 years old to possess and use the drug, and 37 states have established medical marijuana programs. National polls have consistently shown that roughly two-thirds of Americans back marijuana legalization, and support is even higher among younger voters.
But the votes aren’t yet there to pass Schumer’s bill on Capitol Hill.
That’s in part because many lawmakers from states with legal markets don’t yet support substantial changes to federal law. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, for example, represents a state where weed is legal — Montana — and says he does not support federal decriminalization. A handful of other Democrats told POLITICO that they are against legalization or are undecided, including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.). Schumer would need all Democrats, plus ten Republicans, to get the bill over the finish line.
Cannabis legalization advocates have had success in the past framing it with Republicans as a states’ rights issue, but some pro-decriminalization Republicans will likely be unhappy with the bill’s expungement of cannabis-related criminal convictions and its equity grant provisions.
Further complicating matters is that the House has twice passed its own sweeping marijuana legalization package, known as the Mariuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act. That legislation does not include much of the regulatory structure that’s part of the Senate bill, and also has a different tax rate.
And even if a bill were somehow to pass, it is unclear if President Joe Biden would sign it. He has repeatedly said he does not support federal weed legalization.
Bipartisan weed talks
Instead, some Democrats and Republicans are considering a smaller cannabis bill later this year that could see one or more provisions from the CAOA added to the SAFE Banking Act, a more widely-supported bill that would make it easier for banks to offer financial services to cannabis companies. That plan is still in the discussion stage and nothing formal has been decided.
Many of the changes added to the final Senate bill echo requests regularly made by Republicans. Law enforcement grants, a nationwide youth prevention campaign and traffic safety research all correspond to concerns that legalization skeptics have frequently raised. Schumer has met with Republicans — including Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus — in recent months to discuss where the two parties could potentially come together on weed legislation. Whether the changes will be enough to get enough Republicans on board, however, seems doubtful at this point.
Congress has a lot to tackle still in this year, but Democrats are facing the possibility that they will lose the House in this year’s midterm election. That has lit a fire under some lawmakers and cannabis advocates to find a weed bill that can pass this year, and it’s expected that after this bill receives its fanfare, the weed discussion will shift to what is possible to get done in this Congress — versus what Democrats dream they could accomplish.
“McConnell would never bring these things to the floor,” Schumer said last year. “We’ll move forward and try to get this done as soon as we possibly can.”