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Marijuana Legalization

Members of the advocacy group D.C. Marijuana Justice hold a 51-foot blow-up joint on the National Mall ahead of President Joe Biden's address to a joint session of Congress on cannabis law reform on April 28, 2021. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Drug War Foes Applaud Senators' Bill to End Federal Cannabis Criminalization

"This is monumental, because at long last, we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed War on Drugs."

Brett Wilkins

Drug war abolitionists on Wednesday applauded the introduction by three Democratic senators of proposed legislation that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level while allowing states to decide their own cannabis laws.

"In 2019 there were more marijuana arrests than all other violent crime arrests combined, and the majority of those were for simple possession. This is a grievous reality; lives are being destroyed every single day."
—Sen. Cory Booker

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) held a Wednesday afternoon press conference to introduce a discussion draft (pdf) of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act.

"Today is a big day in the Senate," Schumer said to start the conference. "For the first time... we are joining together to release draft legislation to end the federal prohibition on cannabis. This is monumental, because at long last, we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed War on Drugs."

"I will use my clout as majority leader to make this a priority in the Senate," vowed Schumer. "The War on Drugs has been a war on people—particularly people of color. The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act would help put an end to the unfair targeting and treatment of communities of color by removing cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances."

Wyden called the proposed legislation "common sense."

"The current cannabis prohibition, a pillar in the failed War on Drugs, has been devastating for millions of Americans who seek only common sense and fairness from their government," he said. "It defies common sense that small businesses now living in areas where cannabis is legal cannot deduct their business expenses or access the banking system."

Booker, who called it "a historic day," noted that "in 2019 there were more marijuana arrests than all other violent crime arrests combined, and the majority of those were for simple possession. This is a grievous reality; lives are being destroyed every single day."

"We have our precious resources being used to lock up majority Black and Brown people for doing things that presidents and senators and congresspeople have done," added Booker. "This bill is urgent. This bill is long past due. And I am proud that today we are making history."

Marijuana legalization advocates welcomed the proposed legislation.

Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement that "we have been clear from day one that any federal marijuana reform bill must be equally comprehensive to the devastation that has been caused by prohibition, particularly in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities."

"We are grateful to see Sens. Booker, Wyden, and Schumer heeding that call by including language directly from the MORE Act—centering social equity, reparative justice, and reinvestment—that we championed in the House, in the Senate bill, and we look forward to working with them to make marijuana justice a reality this session," said Perez, referring to the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, introduced by House Democrats in May.

Perez continued:

However, work remains to ensure justice does not fall short. To our dismay, the Senate draft contains exclusionary language that ended up getting added to the House-passed MORE Act last year that would continue to subject federal employees to drug testing and deny certain individuals—who have already paid the highest price—the opportunity to expunge their records.

In order for this bill to truly end marijuana prohibition in a comprehensive way and begin to repair the egregious harms of the past, we cannot continue to make room for some to be left out because of laws that were unjust and racist to begin with. We call on the House to remove exclusionary language from the MORE Act and swiftly pass the bill and implore the Senate to also remove this language ahead of bill introduction.

Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, called Wednesday's press conference a "historic moment," telling Cannabis Wire that this is "the first time the U.S. Senate has brought forth a bill that might give a clear road map towards legalization."

The senators' discussion draft states that proposed legislation is aimed at "empowering states to implement their own cannabis laws."

"By ending the failed federal prohibition of cannabis, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act will ensure that Americans—especially Black and Brown Americans—no longer have to fear arrest or be barred from public housing or federal financial aid for higher education for using cannabis in states where it's legal," it says. "State-compliant cannabis businesses will finally be treated like other businesses and allowed access to essential financial services, like bank accounts and loans. Medical research will no longer be stifled."

Asked during the press conference if instead of trying to pass such a sweeping bill, the senators might attempt to limit the legislation's scope to cannabis banking reform, Schumer replied that "we need a broad, comprehensive bill."

Booker responded to the question by saying, "To do it just so that some people can get rich, and not do something about the people who are languishing with criminal convictions, not do something on restorative justice, not do something to make sure that the business opportunities that are created are [on] a fair playing field... I will lay myself down to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill that's going to allow all these corporations to make a lot more money off of this as opposed to focusing on the restorative justice aspects."

The proposed legislation also includes restorative measures "to lift up people and communities who were unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs," including automatic expungement of federal nonviolent marijuana crimes, and allows people currently incarcerated in federal prisons for such offenses to petition courts for possible resentencing.

The bill also establishes an "Opportunity Trust Fund" funded by a proposed federal cannabis tax "to reinvest in the communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs, as well as helping to level the playing field for entrepreneurs of color who continue to face barriers of access to the industry."

Furthermore, the bill would end discrimination in federal public benefits for medical cannabis patients and recreational users alike.

Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said in a statement that "the days of federal prohibition are numbered. These actions by Senate Majority Leader Schumer and Sens. Booker and Wyden reflect the fact that the supermajority of Americans are demanding that Congress take action to end the cruel and senseless policy of federal prohibition."

"It is time for legislators to comport federal law with the laws of the growing number of states that have legalized the plant," said Altieri, "and it is time for lawmakers to facilitate a federal structure that allows for cannabis commerce so that responsible consumers can obtain high-quality, low-cost cannabis grown right here in America without fear of arrest and incarceration."


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