After months of anticipation, a trio of Democratic Senators have finally unveiled the first draft of a major bill aimed at legalizing cannabis at the federal level. The 163-page document, titled the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, has broad implications for the future of pot in America, tackling issues from regulation to reparations.
Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who spearheaded the legislative effort, announced the bill’s release at a press conference on Wednesday alongside Senate colleagues Cory Booker (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
“This is monumental,” Schumer said. “At long last, we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed War on Drugs.”
After dangling the prospect of a legalization bill for months, repeatedly telling reporters it was coming “soon,” Schumer said he was prepared to use his clout as Majority Leader to push the bill through the Senate.
“America is on our side,” he said, noting that most Americans—even in conservative states—favor legalization. “If South Dakota can do it, the Senate should be able to do it.”
Before legalizing cannabis for medicinal use on July 1, South Dakota had some of the harshest cannabis laws in the nation.
Schumer said his views on cannabis have softened with time, but federal legalization can no longer wait.
“As more and more states legalize marijuana, it’s time for our federal cannabis laws to catch up,” he said.
The proposal is only a “discussion draft,” and will surely go through many rounds of revisions before being formally introduced to the Senate floor. For the moment, key provisions include descheduling cannabis as a controlled substance, expunging prior convictions for cannabis-related offenses, and reinvesting in communities affected by punitive drug laws.
Many of those provisions mirror elements of the MORE Act, a landmark bill to legalize cannabis that cleared the House along party lines in December.
Schumer’s bill would require the U.S. Attorney General to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act within 60 days of the bill’s enactment. The power to regulate cannabis would then be transferred from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and to the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
The regulatory shift away from DEA is significant because the agency, part of the Department of Justice, has become a symbol of the War on Drugs’ controversial legacy.
Additionally, federal courts would each need to issue an order expunging all non-violent cannabis convictions for adults and juveniles, and to notify those affected. People serving prison time for cannabis offenses would have an opportunity to get their sentences reduced, and records for non-violent cannabis convictions would be automatically sealed.
“The waste of human resources because of the historic overcriminalization [of cannabis] has been one of the great historical wrongs for the last decades, and we are going to change it,” Schumer said.
The bill stipulates that taxes on cannabis would be allocated towards creating a grant program to fund nonprofits providing services like job training, legal assistance, education, and health programs for people “adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.”
Advocates welcomed the bill on Wednesday as a long overdue step to address the historical injustices perpetuated throughout decades of pot prohibition.
“The days of federal prohibition are numbered,” said Erik Altieri, Executive Director of NORML, an advocacy group that has been fighting for legalization since the 1970s. “These actions by Senate Majority Leader Schumer and Senators Booker and Wyden reflect the fact that the supermajority of Americans are demanding that Congress take action to end the cruel and senseless policy of federal prohibition.”
The bill also addresses some of the collateral effects of prohibition on immigrants seeking citizenship, permanent residency, or asylum in the United States. The text amends the Immigration and Nationality Act to specify that immigrants “may not be denied any benefit or protection” for reasons tied to cannabis, like an arrest, admission of past use, or substance use disorder.
Though the bill’s odds in Congress will be boosted by Schumer’s ability as Majority Leader to prioritize legislation for a vote, it could easily be overshadowed by an already-packed legislative agenda. Democrats are hoping to score big wins with bills on voting rights, gun violence, and infrastructure—a key priority for the Biden administration.
Schumer’s bill extends an olive branch to Senate Republicans by maintaining states’ rights to keep banning pot despite federal legalization. For example, it allows states to prosecute anyone for shipping cannabis into their boundaries, though it specifies that states can’t stop anyone for simply transporting cannabis across their territory.
Adam Eidinger, a longtime advocate for cannabis reform in the D.C. region, told The Outlaw Report he was pleased with the bill’s “meaningful” criminal justice and regulatory reforms, though he said the bill still has a long way to go before becoming law.
“We’re trying not to get too excited because we know there is a tough legislative fight ahead,” Eidinger said. “But we have to admit this appears to be the most progressive multi-faceted cannabis legalization legislation with any hope of passing that has been presented so far in Congress.”