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U.S. Senate Dems launch renewed push for full marijuana legalization


U.S. Senate Dems launch renewed push for full marijuana legalization

May 01, 2024 | 7:05 pm ET
By Jacob Fischler
U.S. Senate Dems launch renewed push for full marijuana legalization
Tim Blakeley, manager of Sunset Junction medical marijuana dispensary, shows marijuana plant buds on May 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Leading U.S. Senate Democrats reintroduced a bill Wednesday to remove marijuana from the list of federal controlled substances, following the Biden administration’s move a day earlier to significantly ease regulations on the drug.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, on Wednesday at a press conference applauded the Justice Department’s announcement it would move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

But they said it didn’t solve problems, including race-based discrimination, created by federal prohibition.

Instead, they promoted a bill that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely, while adding new federal regulations and oversight.

Biden administration to greatly ease marijuana regulations

The bill “will help our country close the book once and for all on the awful, harmful and failed war on drugs, which all too often has been nothing more than a war on Americans of color,” Schumer said. “In short, our bill’s about individual freedom and basic fairness.”

Most Americans believe cannabis should be legalized, Schumer said.

The move announced Tuesday by the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration will ease some of the harshest restrictions on marijuana use under Schedule I, which lists the most dangerous and easily abused drugs without any medicinal value.

Schedule III drugs, which include Tylenol with codeine and anabolic steroids, are allowed to be studied and dispensed under certain guidelines.

DOJ move not enough, Dems say

The Tuesday announcement from the Justice Department didn’t go far enough, the trio said at a Wednesday press conference, and should be seen as a potential launching pad for further reforms.

“We want to disabuse people of the notion that because the White House moved yesterday, things are at a standstill here in the United States Congress,” Wyden said. “I look at this as a chance to get new momentum for our bill, for action on Capitol Hill.”

Fifteen other Senate Democrats have cosponsored the bill.

Communities of color and small businesses

The senators said that federal prohibition, even as many states have legalized medicinal or recreational use, has disproportionately harmed communities of color.

“I think it’s a great step that the Biden administration is moving in the direction of not making this a Schedule I drug — the absurdity of that is outrageous,” Booker said. “But honestly, the bill that we are reintroducing today is the solution to this long, agonizing, hypocritical, frankly unequally enforced set of bad laws.”

Federal prohibition has also blocked tax breaks for marijuana-related businesses, including small independent enterprises that Wyden, who chairs the tax-writing Finance Committee, said he is eager to help.

Wyden said he was excited about a provision in the bill to allow state-legal marijuana business access to a common tax break that allows small businesses to deduct business expenses.

With marijuana classified as a Schedule I substance, the federal tax break has not been allowed even for businesses that operate with a state license. Wyden said that small independent businesses “really get clobbered” under the current system. He indicated that his committee would look at more ways to reduce the tax burden for “small mom-and-pop” businesses.

The senators did not answer a question about if the legalization bill should be considered in tandem with a separate bill to allow state-legal marijuana businesses greater access to the banking system. Many banks refuse to do business with marijuana businesses out of fear they will be sanctioned as an accessory to drug trafficking.

New regulatory framework

The bill would automatically expunge federal marijuana-related convictions, direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a program to help people who lost access to housing benefits because of marijuana convictions and establish a Cannabis Justice Office within the U.S. Justice Department.

It would direct funding to an Opportunity Trust Fund to help people and individuals “most harmed by the failed War on Drugs,” according to a summary from Schumer’s office. It would disallow possession of cannabis to be used against any noncitizen in an immigration proceeding and prevent withholding of other federal benefits from people who use the drug.

While the bill would remove cannabis from regulations under the Controlled Substances Act, it would add new federal oversight, making the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau the federal agency with jurisdiction over the drug.

The bill would establish a federal Center for Cannabis Products to regulate production, sales, distribution and other elements of the cannabis industry, instruct the Food and Drug Administration to establish labeling standards and create programs to prevent youth marijuana use.

It would also retain a federal prohibition on marijuana trafficking conducted outside of state-legal markets, ask the Transportation Department to develop standards on cannabis-impaired driving and have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collect data and create educational materials on cannabis-impaired driving.