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Top Congressional Democrats Announce Bill To Federally Deschedule Marijuana

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) announced on Thursday that they will be reintroducing legislation to federally deschedule marijuana and encourage minority and women participation in state-legal markets.

The bills are the latest in a series of bold reform proposals that have been filed this Congress, but Schumer’s backing is particularly emblematic of the mainstreaming of marijuana, as the top Senate Democrat has historically embraced punitive drug policies and is now—for the second year in a row—introducing legislation to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act altogether.

“It’s about time we decriminalize marijuana,” Schumer said in an announcement video that features him and Jeffries discussing the legislation. “We’ve seen with medical use, the states are working. Some of the states have already legalized, and it’s working well there. So what we’re saying is very simple: let each state do what it wants. There’s not going to be the heavy hand of the federal government telling you you can’t.”

Besides descheduling, the House and Senate bills would also set aside funding for minority and women-owned cannabis businesses.

“Let’s not have some big, fancy corporation, some big tobacco company make all the money,” Schumer said.

The legislation also provides grants to help people expunge prior marijuana convictions.

You’ve had lives and communities that have been ruined in large measure by the over-criminalization. And so creating opportunity and economic space would be tremendous,” Jeffries said.

Under the legislation, known as the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, the federal government would still be empowered to prosecute cases where cannabis is being trafficked into states that have not legalized it. The bills would also put money toward cannabis research, especially as it concerns the drug’s effects on driving.

Jeffries, the House Democratic majority’s fifth ranking member, said earlier this year that he’d be introducing descheduling legislation, saying in an interview that it “shouldn’t actually be that controversial, and it’s consistent with Republican principles of states’ rights and federalism.”

He previously called for cannabis decriminalization, arguing that it was the next natural step after Congress passed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation called the First Step Act.

Descheduling marijuana would represent a fundamental shift in U.S. drug policy, and it’s being introduced as lawmakers work to get more modest proposals advanced through committees, essentially following a “blueprint” to ending federal cannabis prohibition that was proposed by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

“Legislative relief must come sooner rather than later. Over 650,000 Americans, disproportionately black, brown, young, and poor, are arrested for violating marijuana laws annually. Those without the means to defend themselves from the state bear the greatest burden and lifelong consequences of this ongoing failed federal policy,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said. “The importance of this bill’s emphasis on facilitating the expunging of individual criminal records for marijuana possession cannot be overstated. Millions of Americans have suffered from the lifelong collateral consequences of criminal prohibition, making it harder for them to find a job, obtain housing, and access higher education.”

“We’re concerned about freedom. We’re concerned about justice,” Schumer said. “We’re also concerned about safety. And the bill takes good measures in that regard, too.”

One of the bills, the SAFE Banking Act, would protect financial institutions that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal financial regulators. It cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March.

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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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