WASHINGTON -- For the first time in Senate history, Democrats on Wednesday will move toward ending the federal prohibition on cannabis, removing it from the federal list of controlled substances. It's a move sponsors hope will also end the disproportionate harm that has been done to communities of color.
To date, some 18 states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana and 37 states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, now allow the medical use of the drug.
"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," the discussion draft reads. "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."
Sens. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, Cory Booker and Ron Wyden are publishing the draft to allow a period of public comment before the legislation comes before the chamber for a vote, a moment that is long past due for some lawmakers.
"For decades, our federal government has waged a War on Drugs that has unfairly impacted low-income communities and communities of color," said Booker, D-N.J. "While red and blue states across the country continue to legalize marijuana, the federal government continues to lag woefully behind. It is time for Congress to end the federal marijuana prohibition and reinvest in communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs. I am proud to introduce this landmark piece of legislation with Senator Wyden and Majority Leader Schumer that will finally turn the page on this dark chapter in American history and begin righting these wrongs."
But a number of Republicans, led by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., oppose legalization.
"I do not have any plans to endorse the legalization of marijuana," McConnell said in 2018 when he announced his support for legalizing hemp, noting that they are "entirely separate plants."
The federal legislation would allow states to craft their own cannabis laws, just as states do with alcohol. It would end the confusion in some states that have legalized the product in various forms, but where consumers of marijuana could face potential civil and criminal penalties.
A new federal excise tax would also be created by the legislation similar to alcohol and tobacco.
Cannabis would be taxed at 10% in the first year after the legislation becomes law. That rate "would increase annually to 15 percent, 20 percent, and 25 percent in the following years. Beginning in year five and thereafter, the tax would be levied on a per-ounce rate in the case of cannabis flower, or a per-milligram of THC rate in the case of any cannabis extract," according to the discussion draft.
The legislation, if approved, would have an immediate effect on the lives of many, freeing some in prison for non-violent offenses.
"The bill automatically expunges federal non-violent marijuana crimes and allows an individual currently serving time in federal prison for non-violent marijuana crimes to petition a court for resentencing," the draft states.
It would also reinvest new federal tax revenue into minority communities most affected by the 1980's "War on Drugs" and ensure that no past marijuana-related crimes are used to refuse someone federal public assistance.
The proposed legislation would incentivize states and localities with federal aid to expunge criminal records for cannabis offenses in exchange for funding under two new Small Business Administration programs designed to help hard-hit communities.
"The Cannabis Opportunity Program will provide funding to eligible states and localities to make loans to assist small businesses in the cannabis industry owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The Equitable Licensing Grant Program will provide funding to eligible states and localities to implement cannabis licensing programs that minimize barriers for individuals adversely affected by the War on Drugs," the draft says of the two new SBA programs.
Research into the effects of marijuana would be improved, as well, according to sponsors.
"Researchers have stated that the cannabis produced for research is not comparable to cannabis used in adult-use and medicinal markets nationwide, and that the (Drug Enforcement Agency)'s past failures to expand federally-approved production of cannabis have further limited the productivity of their research," the draft states.
The House passed legislation last year removing marijuana from the controlled substances list and the legislation was reintroduced in May.