Hopes for finally removing the federal pressure on cannabis — nearly 80 years after Congress first prohibited the plant — just received a big boost from a recent legislative announcement. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the chamber’s Minority Leader, told constituents last week that he will re-introduce the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act in Congress.
The New York senator’s declaration came at a May 9 press conference at the Brooklyn Information & Culture (BRIC) arts and performance space.
“It’s time to decriminalize marijuana, and this bill is a critical first step,” said Schumer, according to an account on Brooklyn-based Kings County Politics. “The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act would give states the right to make their own choices when it comes to regulation; better equip all Americans, particularly communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana’s criminalization, to participate in the growing marijuana economy; and, by incentivizing sealing and expungement programs, provide Americans with low-level marijuana convictions the opportunity to move forward.”
Schumer shared the press conference with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, also a New York Democrat, who pledged to introduce a version of the bill in the House.
“For far too long, the impact of America’s repressive, archaic marijuana laws has been felt most heavily by people of color,” said Jeffries. “This critical effort works to correct that injustice by providing $100 million toward expungement programs and creating an investment fund for people of color and female entrepreneurs who wish to enter the lucrative legal cannabis industry. Senator Schumer should be commended for his stalwart leadership in this regard.”
In a joint statement from the press conference released on Twitter, Jeffries called the bill “a phenomenal step forward in terms of dealing with social, racial and economic justice in the context of what many people view as a the failed war on drugs that has been with us for decades.”
Added Schumer: “It’s about time we decriminalize marijuana. 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.”
What the Law Would Do
Schumer uses the perhaps cautious term “decriminalize” despite the fact that his bill, officially slugged S. 3174, would remove cannabis from the list of scheduled substances under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act — which would effectively legalize at the federal level.
There is a catch, however. Under language about “respecting states’ rights,” the bill would maintain federal authority to prevent “trafficking” from states that have legalized to those that have not, which means the law would not completely remove pressure on cannabis from the DEA and other arms of federal law enforcement.
The bill includes an equity measure, calling for establishment of dedicated funding streams to be administered by the Small Business Administration for women and minority-owned cannabis businesses.
It also contains provisions to address concerns about highway safety. It would authorize $250 million over five years for research into the impacts of driving under the influence of THC, and to develop methods to reliably measure impairment.
A further $500 million would be earmarked for the Secretary of Health & Human Services to direct research into the health impacts of cannabis. This work would be undertaken in coordination with the National Institutes of Health and Food & Drug Administration.
The Department of the Treasury would have authority to regulate cannabis advertising, in the same way it does tobacco advertising, to ensure that children are not targeted. The bill allows the Treasury Department to impose penalties for violations.
Finally, the bill would incentivize the sealing or expungement of past cannabis convictions. It would provide $100 million to the Justice Department to be dispersed in grants to encourage state and local governments to undertake sealing ort expungement programs.
Schumer made his announcement little more than a year after he first introduced the bill, but it failed to pass under the last Congress. An essentially similar bill, the wryly dubbed HR 420, or the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, was introduced to the new Congress in January.
The Marijuana Justice Act has also been introduced in the new Congress. These multiple efforts make the odds for effective legalization at the federal level better than ever before — although override of a potential Trump veto promises to be a formidable challenge.
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