Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Friday made a “promise” to marijuana activists that he will introduce a bill to federally legalize cannabis before the congressional August recess—a statement tacitly acknowledging again that he hasn’t met deadlines previously put forward for the highly anticipated legislation.
The leader and colleagues have been working on the cannabis reform bill for over a year, and there’s been some frustration among advocates and stakeholders over the protracted timeline for its formal introduction, which Schumer said in recent months would happen in April before putting out a statement last week walking that back.
Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) filed a discussion draft of the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act (CAOA) last summer. That draft’s release also came months later than expected, as the sponsors previously said that it would be put out “in the early part of this year” in 2021.
In any case, the senators said that the newly extended timeline is necessary, enabling them to spend more time refining the bill’s provisions with feedback from the public and bipartisan lawmakers that could help them overcome a steep vote threshold for passage in the chamber. Democrats hold just a slim majority in the Senate, and not everyone in the party is on board with legalization.
Schumer’s latest comments were made at the National Cannabis Policy Summit in the nation’s capital. He remarked that an event like the marijuana summit wouldn’t even have been conceivable years ago, but the issue is finally being taken seriously in Congress.
“Make no mistake, I’m working diligently with my Senate colleagues to make sure that the federal government catches up” to states and the public, Schumer said. “This bill will be comprehensive, and I promise we will introduce this important legislation before the August recess.”
“It’s the right thing to do. It’s about individual freedom and basic fairness,” he said, adding that the war on drugs has been “a war on people—and overwhelmingly people of color.”
He concluded by reiterating that he’s making a “promise to keep working on” the bill.
Still, at this point, some advocates and stakeholders have become skeptical about Senate leaders’ follow-through on cannabis, especially when it comes to the timeline. Schumer had made prior commitments to bring legalization to the floor—not just for CAOA but also for his earlier reform bill, the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act. It’s not yet clear if he still intends to hold a vote on the new legislation after it is introduced, even if it doesn’t have enough support to pass.
In a floor speech on the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20 last year, he said he wanted to see the legalization proposal advance to a floor vote and go to the president’s desk by this 4/20.
But things haven’t panned out exactly as planned, and the leader emphasized that there are about a dozen committees reviewing and making recommendations for the proposal as it continues to be finalized.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to tax and regulate marijuana at the beginning of the month, largely along party lines. That marked the second time that the chamber approved Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY) Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE Act).
With growing frustration over the delays in the Senate, there are some holding out hope that the leader will allow a more incremental piece of cannabis reform legislation to safeguard banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses to advance first.
Schumer and colleagues have repeatedly insisted that comprehensive legalization is the priority and should come before the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which has passed the House in some form six times now.
The more recent potential vehicle for the banking reform is the America COMPETES Act, a large-scale manufacturing bill that’s heading to bicameral conference. The House included the SAFE Banking language in its version, but it was stripped out in the Senate. However, key conferees in both chambers have signaled that they will be pushing to re-attach the proposal in the final package that’s sent to the president’s desk.
It remains to be seen if Schumer will pose an obstacle to that end, as SAFE Banking sponsor Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) accused him of doing after the House put the reform in a wide-ranging defense bill last year.
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Meanwhile, several Republican members of Congress introduced a bill last November to federally legalize and tax marijuana as an alternative to far-reaching Democratic-led reform proposals and scaled-down GOP cannabis descheduling legislation. The sponsor of that bill, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), said she expects a committee hearing on her proposal.
A bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers also filed a bill last week that would simply direct the attorney general to create a commission charged with making recommendations on a regulatory system for marijuana that models what’s currently in place for alcohol.
Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Brian Mast (R-FL) are teaming up on what’s titled the Preparing Regulators Effectively for a Post-Prohibition Adult-Use Regulated Environment Act (PREPARE) Act—an incremental reform meant to inform comprehensive cannabis policy changes in the future.