Did you catch what Chuck Schumer just did? In the midst of a big news week—and these days, what week isn’t?—the Senate majority leader announced a major push towards a major reform of federal cannabis law. How did we get here, and what’s on the table? Let’s break it down.
Is 2021 the Year for Federal Cannabis Legalization?
Talk of a major shift in federal cannabis law has been brewing for years. After all, with 15 states (and the District of Columbia) having approved adult-use cannabis (and 35 okayed its medical use), legal cannabis is close to a fait accompli. But on the federal level, cannabis’ outlaw status is a major wrench in the works when it comes to interstate commerce, banking, research, justice system reform and countless other factors.
Last year saw the passage of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act in the House, but to nobody’s surprise, it failed to clear the Republican-controlled Senate. Now that Democrats hold Congress’ upper body—admittedly by the slimmest of margins—there’s suddenly real hope that this is the moment for lasting cannabis law reform.
How impactful are we talking? Late in January, Senator Schumer (NY) announced his intention to merge several extant cannabis bills in the hope of gaining Senate approval this session. Though he didn’t specify which bills he was referring to, it’s widely assumed he’s referring to the aforementioned MORE Act. In an interview with former NBA player Al Harrington—owner of Viola Brands, a cannabis firm oriented towards social equity and increased minority participation in the cannabis industry—Schumer affirmed his belief that federal legalization would have a large and beneficial impact on the question of equity.
To that end, the following week, Senator Schumer released a joint statement with senators Cory Booker (NJ) and Ron Wyden (OR) to that end. In a recent interview, Senator Wyden underlined some of the benefits of legalization, stating:
“You do that and you take care of the banking question, you take care of the tax question, you take care of the research issue and this whole array of issues that have been gridlocked because the federal government on cannabis has been tethered to yesteryear. That has been the central problem.”
Federal Cannabis Legalization: Where Does Biden Stand?
President Biden, it should be noted, has a long record as a drug warrior. As a senator in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he sponsored some of the nation’s most punitive anti-drug laws, and introduced a bill that strengthened use of the death penalty for those convicted of major drug crimes, among other steps now judged to be unduly harsh.
Back when he was merely Candidate Biden, the President gave less than full-throated support to the cannabis reform movement. Stating he was opposed to full legalization, he leaned instead towards decriminalization, semi-descheduling, and record expungement.
That said, the President is nothing if not an astute sniffer of the political winds. Recognizing that the get-tough stance on cannabis is out of step with an electorate that supports legalization by a wide and growing margin, advocates are cautiously hopeful that he would give his stamp of approval to the Democratic senators’ current push for reform.
Interestingly, Vice-president Kamala Harris—a former prosecutor—may prove to a powerful behind-the-scenes player. After all, during the 2020 campaign, she came out in favor of decriminalization and cannabis-related record expungement. Some observers wonder if Harris will turn the tables on Biden just as Biden once did to President Obama on the topic of same-sex marriage. In 2012, then Vice-president Biden came out in favor of marriage equality without clearing his stance with his boss. Whether or not the move was deliberate, Obama soon voiced his support as well, eventually leading to the historic Supreme Court ruling of June 26, 2015.
Needless to say, we’re keeping a very close eye on this story, one that carries immense implications both for our industry and for the future of social equity in this country. Check back here for updates as they become available.