“Why is tonight different from all other nights?” This is a phrase that appears at the beginning of each line of The Four Questions, traditionally asked via song by the youngest capable child attending a Jewish Passover Seder.
“Why is the attempt at legalizing marijuana at the federal level different from all other attempts?” This is a question that we need to ask today now that three very heavy legislative hitters in Senators Ron Wyden (D – OR). Cory Booker (D – NJ), and Chuck Schumer (D – NY) issued a joint statement this week promising that they would work together to advance comprehensive cannabis reform legislation in the current Congress.
Is this big news or are they simply blowing smoke?
The tl;dr is that it’s probably big news.
While each of these US Senators has introduced federal marijuana legislation in the past, they have not done so as part of a concerted team effort of three such high profile legislators. It’s difficult to exaggerate the combined clout these three politicians have working together. Now, whether this impact is able to cut across party lines to help achieve the desired result of true cannabis reform that isn’t done piecemeal state by state.
It is important to keep in mind that in December the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act a bill to decriminalize cannabis for the first time since President Richard Nixon imposed severe penalties during his “war on drugs” a half-century ago.
Well, the MORE Act died a quick death in the Senate, as has been the case with so many cannabis bills before they could become laws. This was due in part to it getting buried in the urgency of pandemic relief bills, but also because key Republicans in the House and Senate saw the bill as “frivolous.”
Perhaps by frivolous they meant that they thought a new law that would see most people with federal marijuana convictions having their records expunged wasn’t worth the trouble. The MORE Act would have also seen resentencing for people convicted of other crimes where the conviction was made more severe because of a marijuana-related offense. MORE would have also prohibited the government from basing immigration status, business loans, or any type of federal aid based on a marijuana offense, or even use.
So this is where the bar is set for the three US Senators who made their new pledge this week.
But President Biden has yet to solidify his position on federal cannabis reform. The smart political analyst will realize that President Biden is only going to be able to draw so many policy lines in the sand and we have no indication that anything to do with marijuana will be one of them. For historical context, it’s worth remembering that the “War on Drugs” launched in the 80s was something that he had supported. While he hinted at marijuana reform in his election statements, it would be difficult to interpret much of what he has said over the past year as a promise.
Also for historical context, it is worth noting that Senator Booker was the person who introduced the Marijuana Justice Act in 2019, when he was one of President Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination. This was a straight-up social justice bill that would have not only put an end to the federal prohibition on marijuana, but also expunged criminal records, and reinvested money into the communities throughout the nation most impacted by the aforementioned War on Drugs.
There’s no way that the three senators will put together this radical a bill working together. While the Senate is 50/50, there is at least one very tenuous vote on the Democratic side of the floor. For federal legislation to finally make it through the meat grinder that has torn away at every fiber of previous bodies of legislative work there has to be a way to get at least a little GOP support – or, absent that, a bill strong enough to at least engender some apathy from them.
In the early part of this year, we will release a unified discussion draft on comprehensive reform to ensure restorative justice, protect public health and implement responsible taxes and regulations. Getting input from stakeholder groups will be an important part of developing this critical legislation.
The good news for proponents of federal cannabis reform is that this week’s announcement hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who wield the kind of traditional power to make things happen. The stock market is happy about the announcement, with marijuana stocks flying high this week.
Could comprehensive federal cannabis reform help people all over the nation who have been targeted by previous and ongoing “war on drugs” efforts?
David Gelman, founder of Gelman Law, LLC, in New Jersey, thinks it absolutely could.
It has been made abundantly clear over the years Marijuana is not a drug that should be controlled on a federal level. The federal criminalization of Marijuana has affected thousands of lives, especially in communities of color and it is extremely unjust. There will be no more time wasted incarcerating people for petty marijuana crimes, and our resources can be used on the matters that pose an actual threat. The people whose lives have been shattered over crimes they should have never been charged with to begin with, will have a chance to get their records expunged. This could be life-changing legislation.
Gelman also believes that legalizing marijuana at the federal level will make it easier for states to enact their own marijuana laws and regulations.
This would empower states to set their own policies in place without fear of federal interference. In fact, most states have known this has been on the horizon for quite a while and most likely, already have their own plans in place for when this happens. Even if marijuana has already been legalized in a specific state, until it is decriminalized federally, business owners will continue to face unnecessary challenges. For example, not being able to accept credit cards as a form of payment from their customers. The threat of the federal government coming after you will be gone, and states will be able to make more progress in cannabis reform.
It remains to be seen whether Senators Wyden, Booker, and Schumer will be able to succeed where others have failed, but what is certain is that this is an issue that won’t go away. With two years where the executive and legislative branches of government are both controlled by the Democrats, this may be the most opportune moment to enact federal marijuana legislation for decades to come.
About Aron Solomon
Aron Solomon is the senior digital strategist for NextLevel.com and an adjunct professor of business management at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.