Democratic senators move to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level

They say they hope it ends disproportionate harm to communities of color.

July 14, 2021, 1:56 PM

For the first time in history, some Senate Democrats on Wednesday moved to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, proposing to the remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of the leaders of the effort, promised to use his "clout" to make decriminalization a Senate priority.

"This is monumental," Schumer told reporters. "At long last we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs."

While Schumer conceded that Democrats do not yet unanimously support the draft decriminalization bill he unveiled, he said the announcement marks an important step in combatting injustice, especially among communities of color.

From left, Sen. Cory Booker, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Sen. Ron Wyden, announce a draft bill that would decriminalize marijuana on a federal level Capitol Hill in Washington on July 14, 2021.
Amanda Andrade-rhoades/AP

"The war on drugs has really been a war on people, particularly people of color," Schumer said. "The waste of human resources because of the historic over-criminalization has been one of the great historical wrongs for the last decades and we are going to change it."

Schumer said the draft bill, being proposed with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. also aims to expunge criminal records and create banking systems that give small and minority businesses a seat at the table.

Wyden called the bill, "cannabis common sense."

Sen. Cory Booker speaks at a press conference introducing legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition at the U.S. Capitol on July 14, 2021, in Washington.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Booker, who has long advocated for decriminalization, said the need for such a bill is urgent.

"Lives are being destroyed every single day and the hypocrisy of this is that, right here in the Capitol now, people running for Congress, people running for Senate, people running for president of the United States, who readily admit that they've used marijuana, but we have children in this country people all over this nation, our veterans, black and brown people, low income people, now bearing the stain of having a criminal conviction for doing things that half of the last four presidents admitted to doing," he said.

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."

From left, Sen. Cory Booker, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Sen. Ron Wyden, announce a draft bill that would decriminalize marijuana on a federal level Capitol Hill in Washington on July 14, 2021.
Amanda Andrade-rhoades/AP

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."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters following the weekly Senate lunch at the Capitol, July 13, 2021.
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

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.

In this undated file photo, marijuana plants grow in Denver.
Blaine Harrington III/Getty Images, FILE

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.

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