Democrats Preparing Sweeping Cannabis Reforms

“We don’t want the big boys to come in,” says Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) Photo: Shutterstock

Congressional Democrats are gearing up for a sweeping set of initiatives aimed at decriminalizing marijuana that they plan to take action on this spring.

The federal proposals seek to establish 21st century banking services for the nearly $18 billion industry and purge the criminal records of thousands of marijuana offenders.

“The growing bipartisan momentum for cannabis reform shows that Congress is primed for progress in 2022, and we are closer than ever to bringing our cannabis policies and laws in line with the American people,” Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) wrote in a memo to the Congressional Cannabis Caucus on Thursday.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans — including roughly half of Republicans — support legalizing marijuana, the memo noted citing a 2020 Gallup poll. The past year saw five states join in allowing recreational cannabis — New Mexico, New Jersey, Virginia and Connecticut — as well as “a wealth of policy ideas” in Congress “targeted at ending cannabis prohibition,” the lawmakers noted.

The memo is a road map to dozens of bills that seek to reimagine the role of the federal government in every aspect of the cannabis industry, with some measures receiving GOP support.

Bills like the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, sponsored by Lee and Blumenauer, seek to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substance Act and purge records for those convicted of using marijuana.

Other bills would allow the development of a legal cannabis market in Washington, D.C.; enshrine the legality of state cannabis programs and the possibility that they should cover even federal workers; and provide for cannabis research trials for PTSD, while prohibiting retribution by the Veterans’ Administration against physicians who recommend the substance.

Another key bill, the SAFE Banking Act sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), would allow the cannabis industry access to an array of financial services such as commercial loans, checking accounts and credit-card processing.

“Under current law, financial institutions providing banking services to legitimate and licensed cannabis businesses under state laws are subject to criminal prosecution under several federal statutes such as ‘aiding and abetting’ a federal crime and money laundering,” Perlmutter’s explainer on the bill states.

This has forced the cannabis industry in most states where it is legal to conduct business — totaling in the billions of dollars — almost entirely in cash, leading to occasional high-profile robberies and murders.

Then there are bills like the bipartisan Medical Marijuana Research Act, co-sponsored by Blumenauer and Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), among others. That measure would remove restrictions to federal researchers studying marijuana “and ensure that researchers have access to the same high-grade product that is used by consumers, the memo states.

Taken together, the bills show in broad strokes what a marijuana liberalization policy could look like: a modern, diverse, regulated industry of small producers — not dominated by giants like alcohol and tobacco.

“For states making progress on cannabis reform, we must ensure access to the growing cannabis industry is equitable,” the memo reads. “In addition to investing in the communities most impacted by the war on drugs, it’s crucial that states incentivize equal opportunity to participate in the cannabis industry, especially for people of color.

This matches statements from senators like Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). “We don’t want the big boys to come in,” Schumer told former New York Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright in a panel discussion on news outlet Black Enterprise.

Given the long history of unequal enforcement for cannabis crimes “in communities like the one you represent in Brooklyn, where I’m from—to have the big boys come in and make all the money makes no sense,” Schumer said.

The Senate plans to take up the bill this spring, according to Tom Rodgers of Carlyle Consulting, a lobbyist for cannabis legalization and Native American civil rights who has been in touch with Schumer’s office.

“We’re going to have a huge debate next year on cannabis, and they want to have that debate before the midterms,” Rodgers said, adding that “virtually every committee in the Senate will receive a piece of this bill,” including panels focused on banking and criminal justice reform.

While Democrats in the House and Senate are looking to move sweeping legislation, one element has been left out of the discussion, according to Rodgers: protections for Native Americans using medical marijuana on tribal land.

A household on Picuris Pueblo land in New Mexico was raided in November by agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs agents. They confiscated an estimated year’s supply of marijuana from a man enrolled in the state medical marijuana program, The Associated Press reported.

A similar raid would not have happened on non-tribal land, Rodgers said, because of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program. Another measure from Blumenauer and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), first passed by the House in 2019 as part of the appropriations bill, also prohibits any funding to the Department of Justice for marijuana enforcement in defiance of state marijuana law.

A new version of the bill makes it explicit that it also refers to Indian tribes as well, meaning that tribal marijuana markets, like that of the Oglala Sioux on Pine Ridge, would get the same authority as their surrounding states.

But those amendments leave a big hole, Rodgers says, effectively leaving Native American consumers and entrepreneurs vulnerable. The Bluemenauer amendments only cover actions by the Department of Justice, which is delegating authority to the states, he said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is under Department of the Interior, and the tribal lands it polices are federal — “domestic dependent nations,” according to long legal conventions.

“Native Americans want to be treated — the First Americans — do not want to once again be treated disparately, disfavorably, disproportionately when it comes to application of laws and benefits of this country,” Rodgers said.

Much of the pressure for reform is bipartisan. On Thursday, Reps. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) and Don Young (R-Alaska) sent a letter to Biden and Vice President Harris urging them to change the severity with which cannabis is listed, or “scheduled,” under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, distinguishing it from “far more dangerous drugs such as Fentantly, morphine, methadone and cocaine.”

The restrictions forced by marijuana’s place as a Schedule 1 drug, Joyce wrote, “puts the United States far behind many of our international partners and scientific competitors,” from Ireland and the U.K to South Korea and Israel.

“For the sake of researchers, medical professionals and patients across the United States who continue to lose access to life-saving therapies and data every day #cannabis remains over controlled,” Joyce wrote on Twitter, “I will keep asking.”