Senate Democrats introduce bill to decriminalize marijuana

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level on Thursday, a position that is popular with a majority of Americans but is likely to face an uphill climb to passage.

The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and allow states to set their own policies. It would include criminal justice reform measures such as expunging federal marijuana charges while establishing grant programs for small business owners from communities disproportionately targeted by previous drug laws. It would also set up regulation by the Food and Drug Administration as well as a federal taxation plan.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks in New York City in June.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks in New York City in June. (Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images)

Schumer has been working with Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on this issue, including holding a meeting with a number of marijuana legalization advocacy groups in February 2021 and introducing draft legislation last July. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing titled “Decriminalizing Cannabis at the Federal Level: Necessary Steps to Address Past Harms” for next week in the subcommittee chaired by Booker.

“The official introduction of this bill to finally end the policy nightmare of federal marijuana prohibition is the culmination of unprecedented leadership in the Senate and engagement with stakeholders across the political spectrum,” said Morgan Fox, the political director of NORML, a leading marijuana reform group. “We look forward to working with lawmakers to move this legislation toward passage and eagerly anticipate engaging in substantive conversations on all aspects of federal marijuana law with Senate members.”

Marijuana is currently legal for recreational use in 19 states plus the District of Columbia, and legal for medical use in a number of other states. With tens of millions of Americans now living in areas where recreational marijuana is legal for adults, the contrast between federal and state laws is becoming increasingly stark, as some companies make millions on the drug while other Americans sit in prison for cannabis-related crimes.

Polling shows that roughly two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization, with a Pew Research survey released last month showing nearly nine out of 10 Black Americans supporting legalization of some sort (57% said the drug should be legal for both medical and recreational use, while 28% said it should be legal only for medical use). Advocates for legalization also point to the racial disparity in arrests tied to cannabis, as outlined in a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sen. Cory Booker, joined by Schumer, left, and Sen. Ron Wyden, speaks at a press conference on legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition on July 14, 2021.
Sen. Cory Booker, joined by Schumer, left, and Sen. Ron Wyden, speaks at a press conference in July 2021 on legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Despite the position’s popularity, the Biden White House has frustrated advocates for reform with its glacial pace in taking action, with the president saying he does not support full legalization. Earlier this month, six Democratic senators — Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, Kirsten Gillibrand, Booker and Wyden — sent the administration a letter calling on it to increase efforts to reclassify marijuana so it would no longer be considered a Schedule I controlled substance like heroin.

“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,” wrote the senators. “We ask that the Biden Administration act quickly to rectify this decade-long injustice harming individuals, especially Black and Brown communities.”

On Saturday, when Biden was asked if he would honor his “campaign pledge to release all the marijuana inmates in prison,” he said he didn’t think “anyone should be in prison for the use of marijuana” and said the administration was “working on the crime bill now,” although it was unclear what legislation he meant.

The bill’s path forward in the Senate is murky, as the legislative filibuster would require at least 10 Republicans to join Democrats in voting to pass it. Last year, a number of Senate Democrats told Politico they did not support decriminalization at the federal level, although a deal tied to allow banks to work with companies in the cannabis industry might be possible before the year’s end. In December 2020, the House passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act — which contained elements similar to the new proposal — but it was not taken up for a vote in the then-Republican-controlled Senate.