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Senate Democrats push to decriminalize marijuana at federal level

WASHINGTON (CN) — Federal decriminalization of marijuana is on the table in the U.S. Senate following the proposal of new legislation to shake up regulations on cannabis from how its taxed and sold to restorative justice for nonviolent, weed-related convictions and arrests.

Introduced Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act is a long-shot bid in the Senate where, despite a growing appetite for federal legalization throughout the U.S., many lawmakers are at odds on the path forward.

Co-sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Cory Booker of New Jersey, the 163-page draft bill is packed with provisions that go beyond descheduling cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. It is also geared heavily toward reversing damage done to communities devastated by the War on Drugs.

“A legacy of racial and ethnic injustices, compounded by the disproportionate collateral consequences of 80 years of cannabis prohibitions enforcement now limits participation in the industry,” the bill states.

And what an industry it is.

Market researchers at BSDA, an organization that studies futures for cannabis, reported this March that U.S. sales of marijuana for 2020 exceeded $20 billion, a come-up of nearly 50% from just a year before when legal sales hovered closer to $14 million. By 2025, legal weed is forecast to bring in over $40 billion in revenue.

Despite the gradual mainstreaming of weed into everyday American life, crime reports compiled by the FBI show that the number of people arrested for marijuana-related crimes has dropped in the last few years. There are, however, still more people arrested for nonviolent cannabis crimes than violent crimes, generally.

The FBI estimated in 2020 that roughly 600,000 people were arrested on weed-related charges, and the American Civil Liberties Union says enforcement cost taxpayers $3.6 billion.

Unequal enforcement of the law is widely known. Though Black and white Americans consume marijuana at similar rates, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested on cannabis charges. Black and Latinos also receive harsher sentencing for cannabis offenses on average, too.

Notably, this is not a uniquely American phenomenon: a 2020 study in Canada found Black and indigenous people there were disproportionately arrested for weed.

Schumer’s bill seeks to rectify some of these inequities by demanding that, within one year of enactment, orders to expunge “each conviction or adjudication of juvenile delinquency for a non-violent federal cannabis offense” should be entered by each federal court in their respective districts. The same goes for arrests. Further, resentencing hearings for nonviolent offenses must also be granted. And if states wish to take advantage of any federal grant funding established under the bill, they must agree to expunge nonviolent cannabis offenses first.

The U.S. comptroller is expected to produce a comprehensive report for Congress studying the demographics of those convicted of a cannabis offense within two years.

Under the draft bill, public benefits cannot be denied to anyone because they possess weed, and past or present cannabis use cannot be used as criteria to bar someone from obtaining security clearance any longer. And, in a boon for veterans, the secretary of Veterans Affairs is directed to inform physicians and health care providers within the Veterans Affairs network to participate in grant programs to help their patients gain access to marijuana as needed.

Small-business owners and entrepreneurs who want to break into the cannabis industry aren’t going to be left in the dust either. They will receive priority for loans with emphasis on recipients from marginalized communities.

It has been nine years since Washington and Colorado became the first states to pioneer legalization for recreational use, and today marijuana is approved today for adults 21 and up in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana is also available in 37 states.

Though the House agreed 228-164 last month to remove the drug from the Controlled Substances Act, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act, like much else on the Democratic legislative agenda, failed to gain traction under the GOP-controlled Senate at the time.

Wednesday’s bill tries to strike a balance between federal authority and states’ rights on possession and distribution, both sensitive topics among lawmakers in Congress who have expressed some opposition to sweeping federal changes to weed laws.

While the bill would strike down all federal penalties for cannabis, as it stands today, the legislations leaves it up to individual states to determine whether to ban possession, production or distribution within their own borders.

“As more states legalize marijuana, it is time for our federal cannabis laws to catch up,” Schumer said.

Taxation on cannabis products would also increase incrementally under the proposal in two year intervals starting with a 10% tax during the first two years for cannabis products then 15%, then 20% and finally 25%.

During a press conference unveiling the bill, Senator Booker emphasized that revenue from cannabis sales would specifically “support the restoration of lives destroyed by the war on drugs.”

“It’s tougher to get a job, to get credit, to live a normal life. It is a waste of human resources,” Schumer said, adding that his own thinking on marijuana has evolved considerably over time.

Remarking that it makes “imminent sense” to legalize marijuana federally, the majority leader said “doom-and-gloom predictions” on legalization have failed to materialize over the years. In hope of understanding cannabis’s greater effect on the human brain, though, the bill also proposes launching studies through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on driving under the influence of weed.

Schumer was blunt on Wednesday when pressed by reporters on the legislation’s prospects.

“We don’t have the votes in our caucus yet, but we will see if we can get the support. We’re going to put our muscle behind it and our effort behind it,” he said.

Congressional lawmakers continue to wrestle over how to regulate financing for marijuana operations as well. The House passed the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, or the SAFE Act, in 2019, and again last year, but it stalled out before passage in the Senate. The legislation allows businesses to engage in marijuana-based sales without fear of reprisal from the federal government.

Among Republicans opposed to the broad legalization of weed is Montana Senator Steve Daines, who is a lead sponsor for the SAFE Act. Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota has been more ambiguous about his caucus’s position broadly, telling Politico earlier this month how to deal with legalizing weed federally was an “open” question. Thune’s office did not respond to request for comment Wednesday.

As the fight heats up in Congress, Booker hailed the legislation as a long-awaited equalizer.

“People running for president of the United States readily admit they have used marijuana, but we have millions of people that bear the stain of a criminal conviction but are doing something presidents have,” he said. “We have precious resources being used to lock up the majority of Black and brown people for doing the things that a majority of congressmen and senators have done.”

President Joe Biden has expressed openness to addressing restorative justice issues around weed but has been less supportive publicly for broad legalization.

A representative from the White House did not immediately respond to request for comment.