Senate Bill Would Legalize Marijuana, Expunge Records at Federal Level

A new Senate bill would legalize marijuana at the federal level.

Senate Bill Would Legalize Marijuana, Expunge Records at Federal Level

Bills to make marijuana legal at the federal level aren’t anything new. As more states legalize the plant for medical and recreational use, the push at the national level has become stronger, with bills like the MORE Act emanating out of the House. But for the first time in U.S. history, a Senate Majority Leader has sponsored and backed a bill that would legalize marijuana at the federal level.

Along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) in mid-July. The bill would end federal marijuana prohibition. It would also have a significant impact on people convicted of federal marijuana-related offenses and their communities.

The bill in the Senate would legalize marijuana by removing it from the list of controlled substances.

Of course, the headline of the CAOA is that it would legalize marijuana at the federal level. But rather than legalize specific amounts of the plant or forms of it, like in most states, the CAOA takes a different path. If passed, it would remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances entirely.

Currently, the DEA lists marijuana as Schedule I, the strictest scheduling category. According to the DEA, Schedule I substances have “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.” This, despite there being nearly 5.5 million people across 35 states who are currently prescribed medical marijuana.

Schumer, who has recently been a vocal advocate of legalization, said that now is the time to make changes.

“It makes eminent sense to legalize marijuana,” he said. “A number of states, including my own of New York, just legalized recently. The doom and gloom predictions haven’t materialized in any of these states. And as more and more states legalize marijuana, it’s time for our federal cannabis law to catch up.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer is the first Senate majority leader to support a bill to legalize marijuana at the federal level.
Image courtesy of Mobilus In Mobili via Wikimedia Commons.

The CAOA also contains restorative justice elements.

In addition to legalizing marijuana, the CAOA would also benefit people who suffered legal consequences under prohibition and their communities. The bill contains several restorative justice provisions.

If the bill passes, it will automatically expunge all federal non-violent marijuana-related charges. People currently incarcerated on marijuana-related offenses would be able to petition for resentencing under current laws. The bill would also prohibit the federal government from denying public benefits to people because of marijuana-related charges. It would do the same for people applying for immigration-related benefits such as green cards and citizenship.

But the CAOA also contains economically restorative justice elements. Under the bill, the federal government would create two new programs through the Small Business Administration (SBA). The Cannabis Opportunity Program would provide funds to eligible states to make loans to cannabis businesses owned by economically and socially disadvantaged people. And the Equitable Licensing Grant Program would provide funds to states to help them create licensing programs that remove barriers for people impacted by the War on Drugs. To be eligible for these grants, states would be required to automatically expunge marijuana-related offenses from people’s records.

The bill also affects both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Indian Health Services. Under the CAOA, both would be able to prescribe and recommend marijuana to patients.

The CAOA would also move the regulatory authority from the DEA to the FDA. As a result, the government would have unhindered access to the plant for research, regulation and tax purposes. This means major changes to the industry.

For starters, the FDA and other government organizations would no longer face legal barriers to studying the plant. The same is true for universities, which would also be eligible for federal funding for said research. This is something the CAOA bill proposal points out in specific terms.

“Maintaining strong incentives for research and development of drugs containing cannabis is especially important, given both its potential promising health benefits and potentially harmful effects,” it says.

And under the CAOA, the FDA could also regulate the plant in the same way it does foods, beverages, medicines and supplements. That means that they could require specific labeling practices, conduct safety testing and issue recalls.

The CAOA also has major tax and financial implications.

The CAOA also lays out a plan for taxation. It says that in the first year of legalization, the government will implement a 10% tax. This tax would increase by 5% each year, maxing out at 25%.

But it also contains a provision meant to help smaller marijuana businesses. Under the bill, businesses would pay half of the tax rate on the first $20 million in sales. Four years after implementation, a company would a rate of 12.5% on all sales up to $20 million. It would pay a rate of 25% on everything above that.

While not mentioned specifically in the CAOA, legalizing marijuana at the federal level would also change the way cannabis businesses handle money. It is currently difficult or impossible for cannabis businesses to use banking systems. As a result, many businesses deal in cash—a concern for both safety and tax reasons. Under the CAOA, these businesses could store their money in banks, accept credit cards and pay federal taxes on their earnings, all subject to federal regulation.

Image courtesy of Steven Foster via Unsplash.

It doesn’t look like the CAOA will pass this session.

The CAOA may seem like a win-win-win situation. Legalizing marijuana is incredibly popular in the U.S. across the political spectrum. And ideologically, there’s something for everyone. States that legalized are spending less money on enforcement and incarceration and taking in bundles of more money to spend on schools and other social programs. Legalization at the federal level would also be a win for conservatives who champion “states’ rights” as it would allow the states to determine whether or not they wanted legal weed.’

Despite all of that, there is very little optimism in Washington that the CAOA will pass. Democrats technically control the Senate, but with Republicans often voting in a bloc and Senators like Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) often joining them, passing much of anything has proven difficult. According to The Hill, Schumer himself said that some Democrats oppose the bill. That makes passing a bill that would legalize marijuana in the Senate nearly impossible.

And then there’s the president. President Joe Biden has said he is in favor of decriminalization which, according to the definition of the word, the CAOA absolutely is. However, he has also said he is in favor of prohibition, which decriminalization absolutely is not. That’s something White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated following the release of the bill.

“I’ve spoken in the past about the president’s views on marijuana,” she said. “Nothing has changed and there are no new endorsements of legislation today.”

Despite the excitement of such a high-level national politician finally endorsing a legalization bill, Psaki summed up the reality of the situation for the millions of people affected by the War on Drugs. Nothing has changed.

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