On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer joined Sens. Ron Wyden and Cory Booker for a press conference to formally announce their Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), the most comprehensive cannabis reform proposal introduced to-date in Congress.
The long-awaited plan, which the senators announced in February, has arrived in the form of a discussion draft. This unprecedented approach is meant to start a detailed conversation about how best to end cannabis prohibition and federally regulate the cannabis plant and products made from it. (Read Cannabis Wire’s detailed analysis of the discussion draft.)
“We are all joining together to release draft legislation to end the federal prohibition on cannabis,” Schumer said on Wednesday, standing between Wyden and Booker. “This is monumental because at long last, we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs.”
While the bill is historic in that it provides the most detailed federal framework to date, and Schumer said he “will use my clout as majority leader to make this a priority in the Senate,” he acknowledged that the votes aren’t there for CAOA to pass in the Senate.
“We don’t have the votes necessary at this point, but we have a large majority of our caucus for it. We’re going to show it to the others and say, ‘well, what don’t you like? What do you like?’ Schumer said Wednesday. “And, we’ll see if we can get the support. But we’re going to put our muscle behind it, our effort behind it, and we are going to get this done ASAP.”
President Joe Biden has signaled support for medical cannabis, but stopped short of legalization. It’s unclear whether Biden would support CAOA.
“The White House knows we are introducing this legislation and we intend to show them the draft legislation and ask them to support it,” Schumer said.
Also on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki fielded a question from a reporter about whether Biden endorses CAOA.
“I have spoken in the past about the president’s views on marijuana,” Psaki said. “Nothing has changed. There’s no new endorsements of legislation to report today.”
So far, the only cannabis bill to pass out of the House in this Congress is the SAFE Banking Act, a narrow piece of legislation that 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. As Cannabis Wire has reported, this bill has proven divisive among cannabis reform advocates: some say no bill lacking in justice provisions should advance, while others say any progress is worthwhile.
Booker has long sided with the former group, and reiterated that position on Wednesday.
“I will lay myself down to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill that’s going to allow all of these corporations to make a lot more money off of this, as opposed to focusing on the restorative justice aspect,” Booker said.
Schumer, Booker, and Wyden all represent constituents from states with adult use legalization: New York, New Jersey, and Oregon, respectively. Wyden said during the press conference that he recently visited a cannabis dispensary in Oregon, where employees approached him to thank him for his work in the District of Columbia, trying to get cannabis legalized.
“‘Right now,’ said the employees, ‘we’re getting great pay and great benefits,’” Wyden said, of the conversation. “They want that to be made more available,” he added.
Advocates’ early reactions to the draft bill are overall enthusiastic, though some groups are already flagging areas for improvement. Maritza Perez, the director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, for example, told Cannabis Wire on Tuesday that the draft bill “adds seriousness and also urgency behind the issue.”
“Congress is behind the country on this issue,” Perez continued. “But the fact that the Majority Leader is introducing a bill to effectively legalize marijuana is pretty significant. And I think it’s really forcing the federal government to take this seriously. And so I’m just excited about being that much closer to finally legalizing marijuana. I think we really are on the cusp of doing that. And I think this public draft is building momentum toward it.”
However, DPA released a statement on Wednesday flagging “exclusionary language” in the draft, ranging from maintaining drug testing requirements for federal employees to limiting who is eligible for record expungement.
“Work remains to ensure justice does not fall short,” Perez said in a statement on Wednesday. “In order for this bill to truly end marijuana prohibition in a comprehensive way and begin to repair the egregious harms of the past, we cannot continue to make room for some to be left out because of laws that were unjust and racist to begin with.”
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national anti-legalization group, has already sent a letter to the senators. It asks for: “A cap on marijuana potency of 10-15%,” “A ban or severe limitations on advertising the drug,” “Banning any form of flavored or child-friendly products such as flavored vapes and candies,” and “Exclusion of tobacco and alcohol industry influence and ability to monopolize the market.”
With the exception of the potency cap and a ban on advertising, the cannabis industry has largely supported some advertising and product limits, as they exist for alcohol and tobacco. And, most cannabis reform advocates have already come out in support of an equitable marketplace that allows for small and minority-owned businesses, and, further, prioritizes individuals and communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war.
What’s next? The senators will collect public comment through the email address Cannabis_Reform@finance.senate.gov until September 1.
This story has been updated with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s comments on CAOA during a press conference.