Arguably the most closely watched congressional player in the marijuana reform space this session is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). With Democrats now in control of a chamber that for years has been run by GOP members with little to no interest in ending federal prohibition, the pro-legalization senator has found himself in a unique position to lead the charge.
Schumer doesn’t intend to miss that opportunity, as he explained to Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on the eve of the cannabis holiday 4/20. Nor does he want to risk undermining comprehensive reform by passing more modest changes—such as simply protecting banks that service the state-legal industry, as the House did on Monday—before tackling broader legalization.
Together with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), the majority leader is working on legislation that would federally legalize marijuana—a bill that he’s said will be introduced “shortly” and placed on the floor “soon.”
But Schumer, despite his emphasis on the need to enact cannabis policy change, isn’t giving up specifics on the proposal he’s drafting just yet. What he will say, however, is that it will address social equity. It will prioritize small businesses and people most impacted by the drug war. It will incorporate things like banking protections. And, if lawmakers do their job, it will pass this Congress.
Marijuana Moment spoke to Schumer about a wide range of cannabis issues—from legislative priorities for marijuana reform to President Joe Biden’s ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: Minutes ago, the House again approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to give federal protections to banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses. Should the Senate follow suit, or should comprehensive legalization be addressed first?
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer: I’ve always been of the view that while certainly we have to deal with the banking and financial issues that we should do them together with legalization because the [SAFE Banking Act] brings in some people who might not normally support legalization, and we want to get as broad a coalition as possible. Here in the Senate, it’s our goal—as you know, Senators Booker and Wyden and I are working on comprehensive legalization legislation.
We will hope to include things that deal with banking and finance, although we certainly think that we ought to make sure that the communities that have been most affected by these draconian laws get the benefits here, and we want to make sure that there are reinvestment initiatives and it doesn’t all go to the big shots, that smaller businesses and minority businesses get a chance to be involved once marijuana is legalized. We want to make sure, A) that they go together and B) that this just doesn’t let all the bankers, the big boys, in without taking into account that communities of color have paid the greatest price here and should get some recompense.
MM: To that point, have you had conversations with the Senate sponsors of the SAFE Banking Act about potentially merging their proposal into the legislation you and your colleagues are working on?
CS: Well, no. The first step is for for Booker and Wyden and I to come up with our bill, then we will start having conversations with them. As you know, as the floor leader and the majority leader, I get to determine what gets put on the floor, so if I make a suggestion that it would be good to combine these two pieces of legislation, I think people will pay some attention to that.
MM: Appropriations season will soon be upon us. For the past two years, the House has approved spending bills that include a rider to prevent the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere in any state or territory marijuana programs. The Senate has only signed off on amendments to protect medical cannabis states. Now that you’re in control of the chamber, do you think a temporary policy like that should be pursued while you work on a permanent fix?
CS: Our first goal is not to settle for just partial measures, even though that, obviously if we went to legalization, that would sort of be part of it. We’re first going to try to get as large a piece of legislation as we can.
MM: To what extent have you been coordinating with House leadership on broad legalization? Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) says he plans to soon refile his Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that passed the House last year—have your offices been working together?
CS: We’re talking to the House people. Obviously, a good strong bill needs to pass both houses. The House has been ahead of the Senate here only because Democratic control of the House has been two years longer than Democratic control of the Senate. But we are in definite consultation with our House colleagues.
MM: As you’re well aware, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legalization into law this month. What will this mean for your home state in the long term, especially as it concerns social equity for communities most impacted by the drug war?
CS: As you know, I weighed in at a crucial time to get as strong a bill that took into account the harms done to communities of color as possible. And I think that had a real effect and New York’s bill, at the end of the day, being a very strong bill, I was very glad to see what they did on expungement. I mean, for a young man or young woman to be arrested with a small amount of marijuana in his or her pocket and then have this serious criminal record because the law was so overdone in terms of penalties.
To treat marijuana the same as cocaine or heroin or anything like that made no sense. And yet so many young people—their lives were basically ruined because they had a severe criminal record because they had a small amount of marijuana in their possession. They never should have had that severe record. So expungement is only fair and only right. They’re mainly state laws so we can’t force expungement, but it’s something that I was very glad New York did and I hope other states will follow that. And we’ll do whatever we can federally as well to encourage it.
MM: Going back to the federal level, we’ve been talking about comprehensive reform. The House only narrowly approved the MORE Act last year, and that was regarded by advocates as fairly broad policy. You need 50 or 60 votes to get the legislation passed depending on how you advance it—are the votes there?
CS: Well, we’re working as hard as we can. We’re first drafting the legislation. We’re talking to people about it. I don’t want to give out what’s in it yet because we’re in the process of doing it and talking to people. But you know, 65 percent of the American people support legalization of marijuana. I was utterly amazed and pleasantly surprised when a conservative state like South Dakota had it as a referendum and it passed so overwhelmingly. Its time has come.
And you know, all the old bugaboos that if marijuana was legalized, crime would go up and marijuana was legalized, drug use would go up. But we’ve had—you know, [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis] called the states the laboratories of experimentation, and we’ve had those laboratories and they’ve been experimenting. None of these parade of horribles that the opponents of legalization, or even decriminalization, put out came to be true.
I think the American people are realizing not only the harms that have been done to communities of color, but also this this is freedom. And if marijuana is not going to have all these adverse effects—and in fact, we’ll have some positive effects in terms of dealing with legislation, dealing with making up for what has happened to communities of color, it’s a good thing. I think as the Rolling Stones say, “Time is on our side. Yes, it is.”
MM: Senator Booker said in a recent interview that he’s essentially unconcerned about President Biden’s opposition to recreational legalization because, as long as he supports decriminalization federally, he won’t be an obstacle to your pending legislation. Would you agree with that sentiment?
CS: Well, look, I never want to contradict Cory Booker, but I’m gonna keep working on the president to go the whole way. I’ve had some success in persuading him on other things—not related to marijuana, but other issues. I’d like him to understand that the world has changed, the facts have changed and full legalization is the right way to go. Obviously, it’s helpful if he moves in our direction in a significant way. That will be helpful, of course.
MM: Outside of cannabis, I wonder what your thoughts are on more broadly ending the drug war. Oregon voters approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs—is that a policy you support as well?
CS: Certainly, we need much more in treatment. The shortage of treatment is horrible and COVID has exacerbated it. I think we have three times the opioid use than we had pre-COVID. Now we did put about $4 billion into the American rescue plan for more for treatment, but there’s not close to enough. The story I tell is, I knew a man in western New York. His son was an Iraq war veteran, came back with PTSD, became addicted on opioids—and finally his father was trying to convince him to go to treatment and finally, you know, when you hit bottom, the kids said, “Yes, I’ll go.” They went to the local places that provide treatment, and it was 23-week waiting list and the son killed himself in week 22. We need much more focus on treatment. I can’t talk about—I don’t know the specifics of any specific state law, but the focus on rehabilitation treatment is vital.