With a Senate bill to federally legalize marijuana expected to be introduced imminently, a key subcommittee chaired by one of the measure’s prime sponsors has scheduled a hearing for next week on cannabis reform and the harms of criminalization.
The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, chaired by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), will meet on July 26 for a meeting titled “Decriminalizing Cannabis at the Federal Level: Necessary Steps to Address Past Harms.”
While details are limited, it’s reasonable to assume that senators on the panel will be discussing long-awaited legislation from Booker, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), which Senate sources recently told Marijuana Moment could be filed as early as this week.
That bill—the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act (CAOA)—was released in draft form a little over a year ago. Advocates and stakeholders have been eagerly awaiting its introduction, and the timeline for the filing has been repeatedly pushed back as the sponsors have worked across the aisle to solicit feedback and build buy-in, but Schumer has made a “promise” that it would drop before the August recess.
Now with a key subcommittee headed by a sponsor scheduling a meeting on the specific issue it addresses, it seems that CAOA’s introduction is likely less than a week away. Marijuana Moment reached out to Schumer’s and Booker’s offices for comment, but representatives were not immediately available.
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Witnesses are yet listed for the hearing, but it can be expected that legalization advocates, as well as opponents, will testify.
While the three main sponsors have spent months discussing the proposal with bipartisan offices, there’s still a fair level of skepticism about the prospects of reaching the 60-vote threshold needed to pass the measure through the Senate.
Republican senators are generally expected to oppose a measure to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), let alone one that would also impose a federal tax on marijuana sales and contains progressive social equity provisions such as automatic expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
At the same time, it’s not certain that all Democratic members of the Senate will support the legislation, as several members have been either non-committal or indicated that they’d oppose it based on the original draft language. Democrats hold a slim majority in the chamber, so any dissent within the caucus could compromise the bill’s chances of passage.
The hearing could serve as a temperature check after members get the opportunity to review the revised provisions of the legislation.
Support for comprehensive legalization on the House side is already there, as the chamber voted in April to pass a similar measure called the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. It stands to reason that CAOA would also enjoy majority support if it manages to clear the Senate.
The year-long push by Senate leadership to get the comprehensive legalization bill to the floor hasn’t just frustrated stakeholders who’ve wanted to see the reform move more expediently; it’s also created tension with advocates and pro-reform lawmakers who’ve argued in favor of passing bipartisan, incremental policy changes like the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to simply protect financial institutions that work with state-legal cannabis businesses.
That bill has passed the House in some form seven times at this point—most recently as part of a must-pass defense bill—but Schumer and colleagues have faced criticism over their insistence that broad reform must be enacted first, both as a matter of social justice and because they’ve feared that passing the banking bill first could compromise GOP support for CAOA.
Additionally, there are reportedly plans in the works to advance an alternative omnibus cannabis reform package if CAOA doesn’t garner enough support to be enacted. Offices in both chambers are said to be discussing a plan to advance what would effectively be a marijuana minibus of incremental reforms, addressing issues like cannabis banking protections, Small Business Administration (SBA) access and marijuana research, for example, but stopping short of descheduling cannabis. No formal deal has been reached at this point, however.
Meanwhile, a GOP congresswoman, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), filed her own legalization bill last year titled the States Reform Act (SRA) that shares similar provisions to the Democratic-led proposals. It has not received committee consideration, but if the House flips following the midterms, some feel it could be a vehicle for reform should Republican assume control of the chamber.
There are serious questions about the prospects of passing any broad legalization bill in the current congressional climate, especially given the steep Senate vote threshold. But another looming question is what President Joe Biden would do if a legalization measure does ultimately arrive at his desk.
Despite supermajority support for the reform within his party, the president has maintained a firm opposition to adult-use legalization. Instead, he’s voiced support for modest changes such as decriminalization, rescheduling and continuing to allow states to set their own policies.
After more than a year in office, however, he’s yet to take any meaningful steps to make good on those campaign pledges. And days before the House passed the MORE Act in April, then-Press Secretary Jen Psaki reaffirmed that Biden’s position on legalization has not changed.
That said, the White House drug czar recently said that the Biden administration is “monitoring” states that have legalized marijuana to inform federal policy, recognizing the failures of the current prohibitionist approach.
The president also made his first substantive comments on cannabis policy this month, reaffirming to reporters that he doesn’t believe that people should be in prison over marijuana and stating that his administration is “working on” cannabis clemency issues.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.