Top Senate Democrats: We’ll Legalize Marijuana

In control of the upper house of Congress for mere weeks, top Senate Democrats vowed Monday to user their newfound power to legalize marijuana—and to do so soon.

Despite broad support from the American public and repeated success of marijuana legalization at the state level, major cannabis policy reform at the federal level has proved elusive. Bills that would allow legal cannabis businesses to access banks or claim normal business deductions have passed the House of Representatives. But under the leadership of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the former Majority Leader, the Senate has been a reliable roadblock, obstructing even discussion of federal cannabis policy reform.

With the Democrats in control of both the White House as well as both houses of Congress, that now seems poised to end.

In a joint statement, new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sens. Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) said they would pursue and prioritize “comprehensive cannabis reform legislation” in the current session.

Charles Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has put his weight behind legalization. (PHOTO BY TOM WILLIAMS/CQ-ROLL CALL, INC VIA GETTY IMAGES)
In addition to legalizing cannabis on the federal level, the senators pledged to also pursue measures that would enrich and empower people of color, who continue to be arrested and incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses at disproportionate rates.

“The War on Drugs has been a war on people—particularly people of color,” the senators said their statement, released Monday afternoon. “Ending the federal marijuana prohibition is necessary to right the wrongs of this failed war andend decades of harm inflicted on communities of color across the country.”

“But that alone is not enough,” they added. “As states continue to legalize marijuana, we must also enact measures that will lift up people who were unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs.”

“The Senate will make consideration of these reforms a priority.”

No details were immediately available. In the coming weeks, Senate Democrats will publish a legalization proposal that would include “restorative justice” and measures to “protect public health” as well as “responsible taxes and regulations,” they said Monday.

Debates over details like these have stalled statewide legalization measures, most notably in New Jersey and New York. Unlike the sometimes opaque lawmaking process in state capitols, Booker, Wyden, and Schumer promised to involve “stakeholder groups” and welcome their input.

Legalizing marijuana will take significant action by the states as well as Congress. In addition to the federal Controlled Substances Act, which declares cannabis a dangerous and highly addictive drug with no medical value, all 50 states have laws on the books outlawing cannabis to some degree. Even states that have legalized cannabis for adults 21 and over still impose penalties for youth or teen possession.

It’s unclear what impact, if any, federal reform would have on state law. But other advocacy groups and lawmakers involved in federal cannabis legalization welcomed the top Democrats’ declaration to legalize as a significant milestone.

“Last year, we moved heaven and earth to get a bill passed through the House with key criminal justice and restorative justice provisions, but Mitch McConnell blocked consideration,” said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who chairs the House’s cannabis caucus, in a separate statement issued Monday. “Now, new Senate leadership is prepared to pick up the mantle.”

“The missing ingredient in cannabis reform has been Senate action,” he added. “To finally have the active leadership of the new Senate majority leader, rather than being stuck in McConnell’s legislative graveyard, makes all the difference in the world.”

Legalization is also counting on at least one advocate in the White House. Though President Joe Biden has historically been opposed or at least lukewarm on cannabis legalization, Vice President Kamala Harris, when she was a California senator, sponsored the Senate version of a comprehensive legalization bill.

Many legalization advocates believe Harris will use her position to push Biden and whip votes in the Senate for a legalization push.

“After years of marijuana policy reform being neglected and mocked by Mitch McConnell, it is heartening to see these Senate leaders working together to repeal the senseless and cruel policy of marijuana prohibition,” Justin Strekal, the political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in a statement. “We look forward to constructively engaging with Congressional leaders, other organizations, and those communities that have historically been most impacted by criminalization in order to ensure that we craft the strongest and most comprehensive bill possible to right the wrongs of the nearly a century of federal cannabis prohibition.”

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