Pot legalization gets boost as Schumer makes problem a top priority

Senate Majority Leader chuck schumer bolsters prospects for marijuana initiatives on Capitol Hill by throwing the weight of his office behind them.

The Democrat recently said while back in his home state of New York that he would officially unveil legislation as early as April that would legalize marijuana and establish tax and banking rules to oversee the burgeoning industry. He could be ready for some ground action before the midterm elections this fall.

“As Majority Leader, I can set priorities. It’s a priority for me,” Schumer said at an event with advocates for federal marijuana legalization.

Schumer’s personal push doesn’t remove the significant hurdle of needing 60 senators to support him in the 50-50 Senate. But his endorsement puts the marijuana issue in the spotlight as his party seeks to energize its core supporters, including young people who may be less inclined to run in a non-presidential election year.

There is urgency for advocates, as legalization efforts would likely be doomed if Republicans win control of one or both chambers.

Schumer publicly engaged on the issue earlier this month, after the House passed legislation (HR 4521) to improve U.S. competitiveness with China, which included language to make banking services accessible to the cannabis industry. Schumer said if he supports the change, he wants Congress to undertake a complete rewrite of marijuana laws, just like New York did in 2021.

Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Schumer had asked him to lead legislation that could also impose a federal tax on marijuana products and use the proceeds to help disadvantaged communities participate in the cannabis industry.

Sen. Cory Booker (DN.J.) said proceeds could also be used for restorative justice initiatives helping those long incarcerated for non-violent marijuana-related crimes.

“At first I was laughed at with a bill like this,” Booker said in an interview. “And now we’re getting closer and closer.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) has promised to unveil marijuana legislation.

Photographer: Julia Nikhinson/Bloomberg

“Fridge Madness”

Wyden said in an interview that the federal treatment of marijuana still reflects stereotypes promulgated by a 1936 propaganda film, “Reefer Madness,” which portrayed the drug as a threat to the American way of life.

“The federal system is a mess,” Wyden said.

Proponents of federal legislation that deals with legalization, as well as banking and tax rules, argue that states have created an incoherent patchwork of laws legalizing cannabis and have done little to give emerging industry access to federally regulated banking services.

But even with support from senior leadership, interviews with several senators made it clear that the plan faces a climb to get 60 votes in the Senate, where many Republicans and even some Democrats fear making marijuana more accessible.

A number of Democratic senators, particularly those representing states ravaged by the opioid epidemic, disagree with broad legalization. They include Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), Maggie Hassan (DN.H.), who is up for re-election this year, and Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.), chairman of a committee overseeing the Department of Justice’s drug programs.

“I’m not interested in seeing another way for people to abuse illegal substances,” Shaheen said.

Brookings Institution senior researcher John Hudak said the prospects for pushing through a full pot plan are not bright.

“They see this as a real politically winning question, not just for themselves but also for the party as we approach midterms,” Hudak said of the Democrats. “But the challenge, even for the idea of ​​putting the bill up for debate, is that the votes just aren’t there.”

A Republican in favor of full legalization, the senator. Rand Paul (Ky.), said a scaled-down plan addressing banking and revenue issues is more realistic than a full bill.

“Democrats have to get their act together, stop doing things that aren’t working, and try to pass some things that we should be doing,” Paul said.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.) is among the Democrats who would not support a broad legalization effort.

Photographer: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo/Bloomberg

The path to follow

Marijuana advocates say the public and state legislatures are ahead of politicians in Washington on this issue. According to a Pew Research Center poll, more than 90% of American adults say marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use, or that it should be legal for medical use only.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all but three states — Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas — have some form of cannabis regulatory program.

“It’s basically something that the American people have consistently voted for over the years,” the senator said. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

But in seeking progress at the federal level, lawmakers are debating whether to separate pot-banking issues from legalization.

VIDEO: How marijuana is both legal and illegal in the United States

representing Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) convinced members of the House to include in the competitiveness bill his plan (HR 1996) allowing banks to work with cannabis companies. Perlmutter’s office confirmed that it had discussed with Schumer the inclusion of this provision in the final version of the competitiveness bill, which is being negotiated by the House and Senate.

But Schumer said he still wants to push for a comprehensive “fairness-focused” bill modeled after New York’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. Along with legalization, this law calls for overturning previous convictions and allowing people to apply for a new conviction.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he preferred legislation that focused on extending banking services to the cannabis industry. “I’m not a big fan of the pot, but at the end of the day, it’s silly to put people in these positions where they have to trade in cash,” Tester said.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) said most GOP senators do not support sweeping marijuana legalization legislation efforts, but libertarian-leaning Republicans — who make up a growing segment of the party’s base — the make. He echoed Tester saying he would support a bank bill.

“An unbankable industry is designed for corruption if you ask me, and I don’t know why we would facilitate that,” he said.

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