More than 50 years of federal marijuana prohibition has devastated Black and brown communities, helped militarize police forces throughout the country and made criminals out of countless millions who dared to consume a naturally occurring plant whose greatest medical downsides may include excessive Doritos consumption.
If a U.S. Senate miracle happens, however, this could be the year it all ends.
The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act would decriminalize marijuana on a national level, removing it from the Drug Enforcement Agency's Schedule 1 listing, which classifies marijuana as highly addictive, dangerous and without medicinal value. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) each co-sponsored the bill, introduced to the Senate on July 21. This is the first such bill to be introduced in the U.S. Senate in our country's history.
Since then, Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Gary Peters (D-MI) also signed on as co-sponsors.
"This legislation is about justice, strengthening our economy and bringing the federal government into the 21st Century," Murray said in a press release.
The legislation would also invest in communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the Drug War, provide incentives and assistance to under-served communities so more minority ownership would be represented in the industry, and would expunge millions of non-violent marijuana offenses from criminal records.
The investment fund would come from a 25% federal tax on the marijuana industry. Removing cannabis from the list of controlled substances, however, would allow cannabis companies to deduct "ordinary and necessary" business expenses, likely resulting in a net-reduction in their tax burden, particularly for retailers.
While most Senate Democrats support the bill, it doesn't have the support of all. In addition to West Virginia Democrat-in-name-only Sen. Joe Manchin, Democratic Senators Jon Tester of Montana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania are each signaling "no," or are sitting on the fence.
In a political climate where Mitch McConnell would stall legislation that would purport to save his own life if it were sponsored by Democrats, the bill has a very steep hill to climb with Republicans. Even President Biden has signaled in the past that he is not in favor of full cannabis legalization.
The dim vote outlook notwithstanding, that the legislation is in the Senate at all is monumental. A discussion draft was introduced over a year ago, and comes about a decade after the first of 18 states legalized marijuana for recreational use by adults. A similar version of the bill, dubbed the MORE Act, passed the House in 2020.
CAOA would require 60 votes to pass the Senate. Another cannabis-focused bill, the SAFE (Secure And Fair Enforcement) Banking Act of 2021, would need a simple majority in the Senate if it were brought up for a vote. It would prohibit the federal government from meddling with banks who receive deposits from cannabis businesses, cannabis attorneys and other industries associated with marijuana production, processing and sale. Because this legislation is budgetary in nature, it can pass through a Senate gimmick known as reconciliation, bypassing the filibuster.
Some proponents of CAOA, notably Booker, do not want to see banking legislation protecting the funds of cannabis companies until full legalization passes Congress.
"It's simply not enough as it stands without reinvestment in communities most hurt by the failed drug war and while people of color are left to languish in federal prisons for marijuana-related offenses," Booker said in 2019.
Regardless of CAOA's dim odds, it is worth contemplating the effect such legislation could have. State lines would be thrown open for marijuana exports, and the Emerald Triangle in Southern Oregon and Northern California could be the epicenter of weed exports for any of the 30+ states in the U.S. where cannabis is legal in some form or another. Oregon has already proposed an interstate compact with other non-prohibition states to ready itself for when the federal ban is lifted.
"Oversupply" has been the industry buzzword in Oregon for half a decade, and has fed the illicit cannabis industry. It stands to reason that more unregulated market players would see the financial benefits of going legit if the market's demand included the 146 million residents in weed-legal states, rather than just the paltry 4 million or so Oregon residents who currently feed our regulated market.
The CAOA bill was the subject of a hearing in the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, scheduled for July 26.