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Schumer pushes federal decriminalization of marijuana

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., left, and Senate Majority

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., left, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announce a draft bill that would decriminalize marijuana on a federal level in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday announced a proposal to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level by treating and taxing it like federal regulation of tobacco and alcohol while giving states final authority on its legalization.

The draft legislation would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and would expunge federal records of nonviolent marijuana-related arrests and convictions. It also would send new tax revenue to poor and minority communities damaged by the war on drugs.

"We are all joining together to release draft legislation to end the federal prohibition on cannabis. This is monumental because at long last we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs," said Schumer at a news conference at the Capitol.

"I was the first Democratic leader to come out for the legalization of marijuana and I will use my clout as majority leader to make this a priority in the Senate," said Schumer, who was joined by co-sponsors Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Though federal legalization of cannabis won passage in the House last December, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate, Schumer admitted. The Senate bill is not the same as the House bill. President Joe Biden backs decriminalization but has not endorsed this bill.

"We don’t have the necessary votes at this point," Schumer said, even in his own Senate Democratic caucus, and it faces opposition from Senate Republicans. But Schumer said he will work to build support for the draft and asked for comments on it by Sept. 1.

Federal legalization of cannabis would help states such as New York that have decriminalized recreational use of marijuana for adults.

"The bottom line is it's still against federal law, so even though the state can legalize, which New York has done, this will not have the federal government interfere in any way," Schumer said.

Legalization would end federal arrests and convictions for marijuana, allow cannabis businesses to use banks, which are federally chartered, and deduct business expenses on federal tax filings, and make interstate operations possible.

Currently, federal law and regulation classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance that subjects cannabis uses and sellers to civil and criminal penalties and possible asset forfeiture, a discussion draft of the legislation said.

In addition to removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, the draft bill would shift federal jurisdiction over cannabis from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Food and Drug Administration, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

It would still be up to each state to determine whether to make growing, using and selling marijuana legal or illegal.

Recreational use of marijuana remains illegal in most states — only 18 states and the District of Columbia have made adult use of cannabis legal — but medical use of cannabis has been legalized by 37 states and the District of Columbia.

Like cigarettes and alcohol, cannabis sales would include a federal excise tax, according to a draft proposal, starting at 10% and rising over five years to 25%, which would be expected to raise a strong new stream of federal revenue.

Legal sales in states soared during the pandemic, rising to $17.5 billion in 2020, according to the private analytic firm BDSA.

Those tax revenues will largely go to study the effects of cannabis use as well as to communities that are home to the poor and people of color who have borne the worst of the war on drugs, through arrests, convictions and incarcerations, the proposal said.

"Communities of color have paid such an awful price historically over criminalization of marijuana that we want to make sure that the money goes back to them," Schumer said, and not some big bank.

"We also want to make sure that there’s a fair administration and that smaller businesses and communities of color are not left out as marijuana is legalized and sold across the country," Schumer said.

The draft legislation would establish three grant programs "for those harmed by the war on drugs."

One would fund nonprofits for job training, reentry services and legal aid through a new Cannabis Justice Office at the Justice Department. And two new Small Business Administration programs would fund states and localities to help individuals affected by the war on drugs in setting up and running cannabis businesses.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed New York’s decriminalization into law on March 31, after Democratic lawmakers in the state Assembly and Senate passed it largely along party lines. The measure allows adults 21 and over to use cannabis. Dispensaries won’t open until 2022.

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