Now that a much-anticipated Senate marijuana legalization bill has been released, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on Thursday that he is committed to working with bipartisan offices to get “something” done on cannabis reform “this year.”
More than a year after unveiling a draft version of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), the final bill was released early Thursday morning. Schumer discussed the legislation, as well as next steps, during a Senate floor speech hours later.
A theme of the speech was the bipartisan work that went into developing CAOA, which retains the key pillars of the draft version but was significantly expanded following extensive input from advocates, stakeholders and lawmakers. But there was also subtext: the majority leader seemed to leave the door open for his bill’s provisions serving as a jumping off point for alternative, scaled-down cannabis reform legislation that could pass by the year’s end.
Of course, he touted the the new broad legalization bill itself and provided an overview of the various components—from its emphasis on equity to its inclusion of public health and safety measures.
“It is time that Congress catches up with the rest of the country,” Schumer said, adding that “this bill provides the best framework for updating our cannabis laws and reversing decades of harm inflicted by the war on drugs.”
“I’ve had many productive conversations with my Republican and Democratic colleagues about cannabis reform,” he said. “And I look forward to working with members from both sides of the aisle to secure support for this bill.”
A first test for the legislation, which is also being sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), will likely come next week at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing. Booker chairs the panel, and so it is likely that the new legalization bill will be a focus of the meeting.
“Underlying it all, this bill is about individual freedom and basic fairness,” Schumer said on the floor. “The fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I controlled substance, in the same bad company of other drugs like heroin—it’s not just senseless, it’s deeply harmful for countless Americans, [and] again, almost always people of color. It impinges on the freedom of all of us. If this is working in all the states, why not let people use it?”
“We need to change the lack of freedom and fairness. We need to create opportunities for entrepreneurs to legitimately pursue new opportunities,” he added. “And comprehensive federal cannabis legislation is critical to reaching that goal.”
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But while it’s clear that Schumer wants to advance the debate on this long-awaited legislation, it’s no secret that passing a bill that federally deschedules cannabis, taxes marijuana products, uses revenue for a wide range of grant programs and promotes social equity through expungements and other policies is a steep, if not unachievable, objective in the Senate, where CAOA must meet a daunting 60-vote threshold.
Despite work with GOP colleagues, it’s reasonable to assume that there will be fierce opposition in that caucus. Even some Democrats signaled upon the introduction of the draft version that they weren’t on board, and Schumer can’t exactly afford to miss out on their support if it has any chances of passing.
To that end, the leader’s remarks on Thursday seemed to hint at his openness to using CAOA as test to see what provisions could be ultimately incorporated into a separate legislative vehicle, as has been discussed in recent weeks. High-level bipartisan and bicameral talks are ongoing about introducing what is effectively a marijuana omnibus of incremental reforms, including popular proposals like the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. Schumer has been involved in those talks, even as he’s worked to finalize CAOA.
“I want to stress that this is the beginning of the legislative process, not the end,” he said on Thursday. “We’re going to work hard to create support for our bill, and I hope we can make more progress towards cannabis reform in the future. I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to get something done this year.”
The operative word there is “something.” Yes, Schumer made several mentions about passing “this” bill, meaning CAOA, but to get anything passed this year would almost inevitably mean serious compromises. And the alternative cannabis package that’s being discussed would reportedly not involve the crux of CAOA: descheduling.
It’s also expected to contain the SAFE Banking Act language, though perhaps with additional equity provisions such as those that included in CAOA.
That cannabis banking legislation has passed the House in some form seven times at this point—most recently as part of a must-pass defense bill—and Schumer and colleagues have faced criticism over their insistence that broad reform must be enacted first, both as a matter of social justice and because they’ve feared that passing the banking bill first could compromise GOP support for CAOA.
Meanwhile, a GOP congresswoman, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), filed her own legalization bill last year titled the States Reform Act (SRA) that shares similar provisions to the Democratic-led proposals. It has not received committee consideration, but if the House flips following the midterms, some feel it could be a vehicle for reform should Republican assume control of the chamber.
There are serious questions about the prospects of passing any broad legalization bill in the current congressional climate, especially given the steep Senate vote threshold. But another looming question is what President Joe Biden would do if a legalization measure does ultimately arrive at his desk.
Despite supermajority support for the reform within his party, the president has maintained a firm opposition to adult-use legalization. Instead, he’s voiced support for modest changes such as decriminalization, rescheduling and continuing to allow states to set their own policies.
After more than a year in office, however, he’s yet to take any meaningful steps to make good on those campaign pledges. And days before the House passed the MORE Act in April, then-Press Secretary Jen Psaki reaffirmed that Biden’s position on legalization has not changed.
That said, the White House drug czar recently said that the Biden administration is “monitoring” states that have legalized marijuana to inform federal policy, recognizing the failures of the current prohibitionist approach.
The president also made his first substantive comments on cannabis policy this month, reaffirming to reporters that he doesn’t believe that people should be in prison over marijuana and stating that his administration is “working on” cannabis clemency issues.
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