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Democratic Senators Seek Colleagues’ Input on Federal Cannabis Legalization

Three Democratic lawmakers intent on reforming the nation’s cannabis policy are seeking input on a federal marijuana legalization bill with a letter sent to their colleagues in the Senate on Thursday. The letter written by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York, Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon and New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker invites fellow senators “into the drafting process as we work to finalize this legislation.”

“In order to appropriately address such a nuanced issue, we respectfully request the input, advice and guidance of Chairs and Ranking Members of relevant committees as well as senators who have dealt with the challenges and realities of legalization in their own states,” the Democratic senators wrote in their letter.

Schumer, Wyden and Booker noted that 37 states have now passed laws to legalize cannabis in some form, writing that “Alaska, Montana, Arizona, and others have followed Colorado, Washington, and Oregon in reforming their outdated cannabis laws. Even voters in a state as conservative as South Dakota have demonstrated their support for legalization.”

“As more and more states move to legalize cannabis for both adult and medical use, the federal government has an important role to play. Hundreds of millions of Americans live in states that have legalized cannabis in some form while it remains illegal at the federal level,” the three senators added. “This discrepancy leads to confusion and uncertainty and raises significant questions around criminal justice reform, economic development and small business growth, and public health and safety, all of which we believe require some type of federal answer.”

Publication of the Democratic Draft Bill Last Year

The three Democrats have all been working to reform the nation’s marijuana laws with new legislation. Last year, they shared what they characterized as a “discussion draft” of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). A 30-page document that detailed federal marijuana regulation areas not compatible with changes at state levels was shared by the authors. The comprehensive plan to legalize cannabis federally included a number of these issues. It would eliminate cannabis from Controlled Substances Act. The bill also established a framework that allows for expungement federal cannabis convictions.

It also establishes an income tax on marijuana products that will be used to fund grant programs to assist communities most affected by the War on Drugs. CAOA would take away authority for marijuana regulation from Drug Enforcement Administration and move most responsibility to Food and Drug Administration. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau will assume some regulatory duties.

Schumer stated that he will introduce legislation in April at a New York event. He also noted that cannabis reform was a priority for him as Senate Majority Leader.

“As majority leader, I can set priorities,” Schumer said. “This is a priority for me.”

The senators noted in Thursday’s letter that they have received more than 1,800 comments from stakeholders on the CAOA proposal so far, “many with substantive and detailed policy recommendations.” The senators added that in the weeks ahead many of the comments will be incorporated into the draft of the legislation to reflect the views and voices of as many interested parties as possible. With a request to senators for their support, they closed the letter.

“We would deeply appreciate your willingness to share your expertise on the intersections between your committees’ jurisdictions, your states’ experiences, and comprehensive cannabis reform and invite you to join the process of perfecting this legislation,” they added. “We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue with you in the weeks ahead.”

John Hudak, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow, recently spoke out Bloomberg GovernmentIt does not seem likely that comprehensive marijuana legalization will be passed.

“They see this as a real politically winning issue not just for themselves but also for the party as they approach the midterms,” Hudak said of Democrats in Congress. “But the challenge, even for the idea of bringing the bill up for debate, is that the votes just aren’t there.”

Separate bills that address different areas of marijuana policy reform may be the best way to make progress with Republicans and President Joe Biden. A single bill, Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, by Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter from Colorado, would enable financial institutions in Colorado to offer bank services to legal cannabis business. The legislation was approved by the House of Representatives for the sixth consecutive time. It is now part of a bill to increase economic competition with China.

“We know the president has been somewhat reluctant on this subject, so the incremental approach that we talked about earlier is probably a better one to present to the administration,” Perlmutter said last week.