A bill to federally legalize marijuana that’s being drafted by top senators will specifically seek to restrict the ability of large alcohol and tobacco companies to overtake the industry, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on Thursday.
Instead, it will prioritize small businesses, particularly those owned by people from communities most impacted by prohibition, and focus on “justice, justice, justice—as well as freedom.”
Schumer was joined by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) for a brief discussion of their work to develop a comprehensive reform bill. The trio talked about the harms of cannabis criminalization, the state-level legalization movement and the economic potential of regulating marijuana products.
This comes on the same day that a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators was reintroduced in the House.
“We don’t want the big tobacco companies and the big liquor companies to swoop in and take over,” the majority leader said. “The legislation we have will make sure that smaller businesses, businesses in communities of color, get the advantage because communities of color have paid the price for decades. They should at least get something back.”
It is long past time to end the federal prohibition on marijuana and undo the damage of the War on Drugs.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) March 18, 2021
While the reform legislation has yet to be introduced, Schumer said it will be filed “shortly,” and “it’s exciting and it’s imperative and we will get it done.”
He also urged voters to reach out to their congressional representatives and tell them that “this is long overdue,” and “it’s an issue of justice, justice, justice—as well as freedom.”
That was a focal point throughout the conversation, with Booker emphasizing that legalization “is about restorative justice.” He cited data showing that there were more arrests in 2019 for cannabis offenses, primarily possession alone, than there were for all violent crimes.
Legalizing marijuana is necessary to right the wrongs of our failed drug war. But that is not enough—we must expunge records & lift up people who were unfairly targeted. Grateful to @SenSchumer and @RonWyden for their leadership in this effort. https://t.co/IPGbhM0cc3
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) March 18, 2021
“This is not a war on drugs, it’s a war on people—and certain people,” the senator said. “Veterans are disproportionately arrested for possession of marijuana; low-income people disproportionately arrested; people with mental health challenges disproportionately arrested; and of course, as you said, Chuck, black and brown communities are targeted.”
“That’s why what Chuck Schumer said is so urgent. It’s not just about creating an environment where states are legalizing, it’s about restorative justice, and that’s a number of things,” Booker said. “That’s, one, making sure that we expunge records. Don’t talk about free adult use of marijuana without talking about expunging records. Number two, the tax money—this is going to be a multibillion dollar business. Those tax receipts should be reinvested in those in those communities.”
“We want to move this bill,” Schumer, who touted the fact that he is the first Senate caucus leader to embrace reform, in part because Booker helped inform him on the issue, said. “It’s time.”
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The senators also talked about how fears about the consequences of state-level legalization like increased crime did not materialize. Instead, what’s become clear is that criminalizing people over cannabis and imposing lengthy sentences for non-violent marijuana crimes is where the harm lies.
“Look, the bottom line here, as the leader Senator Schumer has said, is it is long past time to address the harms of the failed war on drugs,” Wyden, whose panel will have jurisdiction over the legalization legislation, said. “My state was one of the first, and people went to the polls and they said this marijuana prohibition, folks, just doesn’t work. And certainly communities of color have been devastated by these failed policies.”
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) March 18, 2021
“Millions of Americans now, like the folks I have the honor to represent, have gone to the polls, and they have said that they agree with Senator Schumer and Booker and I,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to accept any more dawdling from the federal government. It’s kind of like the federal government has been in a time warp.”
“We’ve got a real shot now at making progress,” he added.
Schumer, who also included cannabis legalization as a legislative priority in a recent fundraising email to his list of supporters, said that the American people recognize that prohibition has failed and “so many lives have been wasted because marijuana has been listed as something as bad as heroin” under federal law.
The three senators also held an initial meeting with a variety of reform advocates last month to begin gathering input as they draft a comprehensive legalization bill.
Meanwhile, on the House side, there’s also movement to enact federal policy changes on cannabis. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) recently said that he will soon be refiling the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act to end federal prohibition and promote social equity. That bill cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under Republican control.
Separately, legislation was introduced in the House on Thursday to provide marijuana banking protections and also ensure that cannabis businesses can obtain insurance coverage.
Advocates are hopeful that any one of these proposals can advance this session now that Democrats are in control of the House, Senate and White House.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.