Inside Chuck Schumer’s Elusive Pot Bill

Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

Back on April 19th, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer shocked the political world when he announced he was introducing his own bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. While many publications wrote glowing headlines stating the bill was going to be introduced on 4/20 – the nation’s unofficial weed holiday – here we are, two months later, and there’s still no bill.

Earlier this month at a Capitol Hill press conference, Rolling Stone asked Schumer when we could expect his long-awaited bill. “It will be introduced shortly,” he said briskly, before dismissively moving on to other reporter’s questions.

Since then, the leader’s staff has been working with marijuana experts and Rolling Stone has learned his staff has told at least three advocates that the legislation will be introduced this month, though Schumer’s staff still refuses to publicly confirm what they’ve assured advocates privately.

But advocates say the legislation could be be groundbreaking. They say it includes a new provision creating a much needed fund to help more minorities and women enter the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry, while also funding research on the health effects of pot. They also say it gives the federal government control over marijuana advertising and it funds studies on impaired driving. These advocates are still trying to get Schumer to make last-minute tweaks before he drops his bill, but they’re just glad his staff has started devoting attention to it.

“I mean he’s the minority leader, he’s obviously a busy guy. They’re busy staff,” says Michelle Rutter, the government relations manager at the National Cannabis Industry Association. “This probably wasn’t their number one top priority.”

Schumer’s aides won’t confirm the timing of their bill’s release and they’re pushing back on the criticisms over the delay. “The extra weeks it’s taken to release the final bill text is strictly about getting the bill right rather than out fast,” a Schumer aide told Rolling Stone, asking to remain anonymous because the bill is still not public.

Schumer’s bill is shaping up to be a landmark proposal because of its promise to end the federal prohibition on marijuana. It calls for decriminalizing weed federally and allowing each state to decide their own policies, but some marijuana advocates say the legislation falls short of that promise because it removes marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances. Thus each state could still decide on its own to make marijuana use or possession a crime. That wouldn’t be an option under other marijuana bills that have already been introduced on Capitol Hill.

“The overwhelming majority of marijuana charges are administered at the state and local level, not by federal agents. While the legislation ends the federal criminal penalties, it doesn’t trigger an automatic change of state policies,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal tells Rolling Stone. “The bill is a federal de-scheduling, it’s not a total decriminalization bill, per-se. If we de-scheduled tomorrow, there are ways to incentivize state-level decriminalization but the federal government can’t change state policy, they can only influence it.”

That’s why many marijuana watchers are urging Schumer to also co-sponsor New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Just Act – a bill that outright legalizes marijuana at the federal level. That legislation also includes incentives for states to expunge the records of non-violent drug offenders while investing money in the communities that have been left blighted by the high number of people incarcerated for drug felonies.

“We still really emphasize the approach of ending prohibition, but also acknowledging the harms of prohibition and actively taking bold steps to address those harms through reinvesting in [those] communities most impacted,” Queen Adesuyi, a national affairs policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance, tells Rolling Stone. “The Marijuana Justice Act is essential because of the dots that it connects between marijuana reform and criminal justice and racial and reparative justice.”

Sen. Booker is also trying to get the minority leader to endorse his proposal.

“I am, because when he says decriminalization, that’s in effect what our legislation is doing,” Booker tells Rolling Stone.

As for the disagreement between some marijuana advocates and the leader’s office on just how far their current version of the bill goes, Booker says the debate is a little academic and he maintains that he and Schumer are on the same page.

“He’s studying the issue now, I know,” Booker says while riding the train under the Capitol. “I don’t think that there’s any distance between this. It’s semantics.”

Marijuana advocates and Booker say there are new elements in Schumer’s bill that may also be able to eventually be melded with the Marijuana Justice Act. And, adds Booker, Schumer’s about-face on marijuana is remarkable. The New Jersey Senator predicts it will have a major impact on federal policy makers, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle.

“He’s bold, he’s strong, he’s taking a big step and you know you’ve seen his evolution on this issue, so his adding his voice to the chorus of the movement in this country is such a critical thing,” Booker adds. “His leadership is essential to get something done in the long term.”

Even if Schumer’s had a steep learning curve and is having to study marijuana policy on the fly, insiders agree that his support could be a game changer.

“It’s very dramatic to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely – I mean that in and of itself is a pretty bold move,” Rutter, of the Cannabis Industry Association, says. “I think that this is setting the stage a lot for the party as a whole, and moving, you know, into 2020, I think that he’s sort of making a political statement with this bill and I think it’s about that too. But I absolutely would say that this is pretty radical.”

The political statement has been made. Now we’re all just waiting to see the bill.