Nearly six months after it was first promised, U.S. Senators will release a draft of the most comprehensive federal cannabis reform proposal to-date on Wednesday.
In February, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, along with Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden, announced that they were working on a cannabis reform bill. All three senators represent constituents in states that have legalized cannabis: New York, New Jersey, and Oregon, respectively. A “unified discussion draft” of the bill would be released first, they said, in order to collect public input, “in the early part of this year.”
Now, that draft bill has a name: the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act. And, more details will emerge during a news conference on Wednesday, according to a source briefed on the timing.
The Senators’ proposal is expected to substantially change the cannabis conversation in Congress by proposing a regulatory framework and meaningfully engaging stakeholders on the “hows” of cannabis reform.
“This is an historic moment,” Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, one of the first and oldest cannabis reform groups in the US, told Cannabis Wire. “This will be the first time the US Senate has brought forth a bill that might give a clear roadmap towards legalization.”
So far, the cannabis bills that have advanced in Congress — and only out of the House — are very specific or very sweeping. The SAFE Banking Act, for example, which has twice passed out of the House of Representatives, would provide safe harbor to banks and other financial institutions that want work with the cannabis industry but fear consequences as a result of federal prohibition. The MORE Act, on the other hand, which passed out of the House in the last Congress and has since been reintroduced, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and end the federal criminalization of cannabis, but offers little else in the way of regulation.
But, there are critical issues that are, or will be, top-of-mind for reform advocates, industry members, and lawmakers alike, and that truly comprehensive legislation will need to address. There is the question of agency jurisdiction — or, in other words, who will oversee what — which could include, for example, the Food and Drug Administration, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and the Department of Agriculture. There is the question of interstate commerce of cannabis or cannabis products: should it be allowed sooner or later, and how? Will this policy change give a leg up to big players ready to go national, and override the equity aims of legalization? There’s what to do about existing state programs, and the states that don’t want cannabis activity within their borders. And, crucially, in particular for those lawmakers who are on the fence, there are the public health and safety considerations, from the workplace to the roads.
Whether and how these issues are addressed in the Senators’ draft remains to be seen. What they have promised, though, is that the proposal will prioritize restorative justice. “We are committed to working together to put forward and advance comprehensive cannabis reform legislation that will not only turn the page on this sad chapter in American history, but also undo the devastating consequences of these discriminatory policies,” the lawmakers announced in February, referencing the war on drugs. “The Senate will make consideration of these reforms a priority.”
The lawmakers also later promised to keep big business at bay. In a video released in March, Schumer said, “We don’t want the big tobacco companies and the big liquor companies to swoop in and take over. The legislation we have will make sure that smaller businesses, businesses in communities of color, get the advantage, because the communities of color have paid the price for decades.”
Andrew Freedman, the executive director of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR) and, formerly, Colorado’s first director of marijuana coordination, told Cannabis Wire that he is feeling “giddy” and “excited” about a proposal that “centralizes the conversation, focuses it,” around facts and data.
“If this process goes forward in the right way, we could actually progress a really important conversation about what this needs to look like,” Freedman said. “It kind of feels like we’ve been having the same debate on Capitol Hill for 20 years at this point, and so this might unjam that a little bit and help us move down the road to some good policies.”