Cannabis Legalization Finally Introduced to Senate

The Senate’s long-awaited bill to end federal cannabis prohibition, The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, was finally introduced last week after a year of anticipation.

After word first got out last summer that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would join  Finance Committee Chairman Rob Wyden (D-OR) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) in moving the federal effort forward, it’s basically been a series of countdowns for advocates. First to see language, then to get their comments in on time, and now to see the bill officially filed and sponsored by some of the Hill’s biggest hitters. 

We had a lot of clues in the direction things would go when it came to the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) removing cannabis from The Controlled Substances Act, while protecting public health and safety in the process. We knew that there would be a path to market for communities hit the hardest by the war on drugs’ disproportionate impact on people of color. As cannabis increasingly becomes a bigger money game by the day, the restorative and economic justice aspects of the bill were a known bedrock early. As were things like a basic tax structure and a call for more scientific research.

Over the year, Senators would receive 1,800 comments from stakeholders on what federal cannabis regulations should look like. HELP Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and HSGAC Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-MI) also came on board as cosponsors of the CAOA. 

“For far too long, the federal prohibition on cannabis and the War on Drugs has been a war on people, and particularly people of color,” said Majority Leader Schumer. “The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act will be a catalyst for change by removing cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, protecting public health and safety, and expunging the criminal records of those with low-level cannabis offenses, providing millions with a new lease on life. A majority of Americans now support legalizing cannabis, and Congress must act by working to end decades of over-criminalization. It is time to end the federal prohibition on cannabis.”

Schumer’s fellow cosponsor Wyden noted that the ‘when’ part of the great cannabis debate has essentially ended. It now comes down to effectively bringing the market into the light, while addressing those who has been victimized by the worst aspects of legalization. 

“It’s no longer a question of ‘if cannabis should be legal.’ The states are moving ahead, and not only do the overwhelming majority of American people support legalization, they now live in a state where some form of cannabis is legal,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Wyden said. “I’d ask my colleagues in the Senate to think long and hard about what keeping the federal government stuck in yesteryear means for public health and safety. By failing to act, the federal government is empowering the illicit cannabis market, it’s ruining lives and propping up deeply rooted racism in our criminal justice system, it’s holding back small cannabis businesses from growing and creating jobs in their communities. Cannabis legalization is here, and Congress needs to get with the program.”

For years, the final member of the initial trio of sponsors, Cory Booker, has been one of the most outspoken members of Congress on the issues of cannabis legalization and the neighborhoods hit the hardest by the delay. Over the last year, advocates applauded Booker’s effort to keep cannabis banking on the table as a bargaining chip when it came to preserving something for the wider social equity movement. 

On the flip side, some argued the violence operators with big piles of cash were facing outweighed the hypothetical market share worked into the bill. Keith Stephenson is the owner of the nation’s oldest black-owned cannabis business, Purple Heart in Oakland. He told us as the SAFE Banking debate raged, access to basic financial services would be a gamechanger for public safety. 

But as Supernova Women cofounder Amber Senter noted, while bank accounts are nice, she expected communities of color in cannabis would face the same discriminatory practices seen in other parts of the financial services sector. So getting access to merchant services is one thing, getting access to wider capital is another. 

“As more states legalize cannabis and work toward reversing the many injustices the failed War on Drugs levied against black, brown, and low-income people, the federal government continues to lag woefully behind,” said Senator Booker.

Booker went on to note the restorative justice aspects of the bill reflect common sense drug policies. 

“With strong restorative justice provisions for communities impacted by the drug war, support for small cannabis businesses, and expungement of federal cannabis offenses, this bill reflects long overdue, common sense drug policy,” Booker said. “I am proud to have partnered with Senators Schumer and Wyden to introduce this critical legislation. The support that we have received from committee chairs and outside groups underscores the historic nature of this bill, and the urgent need for Congress to pass it.”

On the other side of Capitol Hill, Rep. Earl Blumenauer has quarterbacked the cannabis effort for years with a carousel of faces eventually joining him in the reform movement over his long stay in Congress. He has been involved in cannabis reform since his first term in the Oregon House of Representatives in 1973. 

“The introduction of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act in the Senate is a historic breakthrough in our bicameral efforts to end the failed federal prohibition of cannabis,” Blumenauer noted after the bill was filed. 

Blumenauer noted, after working for decades on this issue, he is finally starting to watch the dam break. 

“For far too long, the federal government has stood in the way of science and progress — failing our communities who have been most impacted by the disastrous war on drugs and prohibiting individuals from utilizing the health benefits of cannabis. The momentum surrounding cannabis reform in Congress and nationally has reached a fever pitch,” Blumenauer said. 

The congressman said he is looking forward to working with his friends in the Senate to reconcile the differences between the CAOA and House-passed bills. This includes bills like The MORE Act and SAFE Banking.  

“It is critical we resolve minor differences in the pursuit of larger objectives,” Blumenauer said. “We have never had stronger leadership in Congress for cannabis reform, and I’m optimistic that now is the time to make significant progress.”

We saved this story for print for the sake of the historical record, earlier in the week we broke down the main differences in the bill that made it to the Senate compared to the draft language from last year.


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