Sen. Cory Booker, Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer plan to release cannabis legislation to both end the federal prohibition of cannabis and help communities that are most impacted by the War on Drugs, possibly by the end of the month.
Sens. Booker, Wyden, and Chuck Schumer introduced a discussion draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) last July, which would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level and allow states to decide whether to make it legal. It would also expunge nonviolent cannabis crimes, and taxes would be allocated to help communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs.
Since releasing the outline of the bill, lawmakers called for feedback on what to include and exclude from the final bill. The community responded. NORML, for instance, called for strengthening civic protections to clear records, revising outdated testing requirements, and providing a pathway for small businesses to compete with large ones. Others showed concern about tax rates.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced at a press conference in February that he intends to formally introduce the bill in April. NJ.com reports that the bill is almost written, and due to drop towards the end of the month. While the media is targeting April 20 as a good symbolic date for an announcement, the Senate is in recess through April 22, so a bill being introduced during the week of April 25 is more likely.
“I don’t mean this to be fully in jest but there’s been a lot of conversation about doing it on 4/20,” Booker told news outlets at the U.S. Capitol. “Aspirationally, I would love to see it done on 4/20 but I can’t speak to that, given all the things that are sort of backing up in the Senate.”
The U.S. House approved another comprehensive cannabis bill on April 1, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, but that gained support from only three Republicans. Booker needs the support of at least 10 GOP senators if the Senate is to pass any sort of legislation, but remains optimistic about ending prohibition the right way.
“This cannot just be about simple legalization,” Booker said. “It has to be about restorative justice. We had a really awful run of prohibition. This war on drugs has been not a war on marijuana. It’s been a war on people. This idea that you can just suddenly legalize or decriminalize and have so many Americans still suffering the consequences for having a criminal conviction where they can’t get a job, a loan from a bank, that’s just patently unfair. So this is a bill built around those ideas of restorative justice.”
Steven Hawkins is president and CEO of the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), as well as the former executive director of Marijuana Policy Project. Hawkins said that we don’t have the full bill quite yet, but a few things stand out. A full list of the USCC’s guidance for the draft discussion was released last September, but a few immediate issues come to mind.
“First of all, the proposed tax, at least in the draft, had the federal tax at 25% on top of high state taxes that exist currently,” Hawkins told High Times. “It would just make it impossible for the industry to succeed in most states. So that would have to be addressed. And then the question of primary jurisdiction. The draft proposed that the FDA have primary jurisdiction. We certainly have concerns with the role of the FDA. We’d rather see the Tax and Trade Bureau have primary jurisdiction.”
The CAOA would also establish a regulatory framework for cannabis under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Descheduling would also normalize income tax for legal cannabis businesses, meaning existing businesses would no longer be subject to Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code. But some argue cannabis should be regulated more like alcohol. “The Tax and Trade Bureau is already dealing with adult-use products with alcohol and tobacco,” Hawkins said. “We’d want that agency to have jurisdiction over cannabis as well.”
The bill, once introduced, will head to the Senate, where it will pass through several committees and converge with more. “The bill—to our knowledge—will intersect with at least a dozen committees,” Hawkins said.
The CAO Act (or CAOA) has been characterized as a states’ rights bill, allowing states to choose, and differs from bills such as Rep. Nancy Mace’s States Reform Act, mostly due to the inclusion of items such as social equity provisions.
“Normally legislation this comprehensive doesn’t pass on the first go,” Hawkins said. “You have to build support. What we saw with the MORE Act, was that there were some Republicans asking questions: How do we protect children. How do we deal with intoxication. There were a couple people who said, absolutely not, we should not allow this ever, but there were not anywhere close to the majority in terms of comments during the hearing. What we’re seeing is the maturity of our movement. There are now competing bills in the House of Representatives with Nancy Mace’s bill, the MORE Act, etc.”
While some leaders worry about the bill’s odds in the Senate under the current Congress, others worry about the tax implications. Rep. David Joyce opposed the MORE Act, issuing an announcement citing that it has no chance of passing the Senate, while others disagree.
“The movement towards cannabis descheduling and legalization is growing stronger and stronger,” Hawkins said. “We now have competing visions in the House. We’ll see what Republican support emerges in the Senate. It may be—given the partisan nature of the Senate—that the CAO bill will just be seen—rightly or wrongly—as simply a Chuck Schumer bill. But that doesn’t mean if a Republican bill were to emerge in the Senate, that there would not be [more supporters].”
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