When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden released the discussion draft of their federal cannabis law reform proposal in July, they invited the public to help shape an historic shift.
The trio referred to their Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) as a “detailed legislative proposal meant to spur a robust discussion among stakeholders,” and set a September 1 deadline for comments.
The sponsors sparked widespread interest in the legislation in February, when they first revealed that they were working on the draft. If passed, CAOA would end federal prohibition of cannabis and place its regulation into the hands of agencies including the Food and Drug Administration and the Treasury Department’s Tax and Trade Bureau.
The draft is the most comprehensive cannabis reform proposal ever in Congress. Schumer said he would use his “clout as Majority Leader to make this a priority in the Senate,” while also acknowledging that the votes are not yet 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 in July. “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.”
Over the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s deadline, comments have rolled in.
One of the first comments came from anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which released a letter in July supporting “decriminalization of low-level marijuana possession, expungements, and expanded research into the medical benefits of the drug,” while adding that any full legalization bill should cap potency at 15%, ban or strictly limit advertising, and ban flavored vapes and edible products, among other provisions.
Last week, Colorado Governor Jared Polis became the first governor to publicly share their comments, and Polis’ priorities mapped against the slew of input that came in from nearly a dozen cannabis trade groups in the hours ahead of deadline. In particular, Polis called the Act’s proposed tax structure “untenable” and “prohibitive,” and urged “cooperative federalism” that “will complement and support—not displace—successful state programs.”
Here’s what some other cannabis-focused groups had to say:
The organization focused on four key points: moving cannabis cultivation licensing from the Treasury Department to the Department of Agriculture; raising the legal limit of THC in hemp from .3% to 1%; allowing for CBD in foods and supplements instead of just supplements; a less “onerous” tax structure.
The group identified two top “areas of concern”: “the possible upending of state licensing and regulatory systems — driving sales underground — and the impact on medical cannabis access.” Also, the group called for the Act to expand provisions related to expungement and re-sentencing, and to end “federal workplace drug testing” for cannabis.
The group focused on three main points: that the Treasury Department’s Tax and Trade Bureau, not the US Food and Drug Administration, be the “primary regulator” of cannabis (a point echoed by MPP); the need for a cannabis tax structure that pulls from the lessons of alcohol while considering the differences among the products; and a recognition of existing state industries that includes a “transition period prior to importations or interstate commerce” to allow existing operators and regulators a chance to catch up to the new legal system.
In announcing its comments, the group highlighted tax-related concerns, writing that “there are serious concerns that the suggested tax structure and other financial rules will result in even more onerous financial burdens than those which currently exist under prohibition and which will fall disproportionately on small businesses.” The comments were otherwise wide-ranging, from echoing NIHC’s point about the USDA being best suited to oversee cannabis cultivation to proposing “interstate broker permits.”
The group emphasized the need for stronger “civic” protections, around record expungements and workplace drug testing, for example, ensuring smaller operators have lower taxes, and “deference” to states with existing cannabis programs. NORML also noted that it “solicited feedback from thousands of marijuana policy reform supporters from every state” and included responses around “some of the most commonly discussed elements in the proposed draft.” Those topics were expungement, employment-related drug testing, and interstate commerce.
The group’s comments were detailed and lengthy, and emphasized interstate commerce, calling for the Act to, for example, “expressly authorize introduction of existing state-lawful cannabis products into interstate commerce upon enactment.” They also echoed some of the other group’s sentiments regarding, for example, the role of the USDA when it comes to cannabis cultivation.
The group, which counts among its founding member some of the largest alcohol and tobacco companies in the country, from Marlboro-maker Altria to Constellation Brands (SVEDKA, Corona), also provided a particularly comprehensive set of comments, and listed its priorities as: “positioning the new federal legal marketplace to capture currently illicit sales,” “respecting the state systems,” “evolving the federal regulatory system based on science, data, and best practices,” and “providing meaningful economic opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses.”
The new think tank’s extensive comments had a clear focus: fairness. First, the comments detail ongoing industry consolidation and the entry of major alcohol and tobacco companies. “In this spirit,” the Center continues, “our proposed solutions apply existing practices and known methods in the antitrust tradition to the new cannabis industry, creating a fair and level playing field on which state social equity programs and federal opportunity grant programs have the best possible chance of working as intended.
“Our goal is to avoid irreversible market consolidation, and instead create a gradual approach to national legalization that favors an ecosystem of small businesses over a handful of excessively large ones. In short, our proposed changes to CAOA allow regulating agencies to collect data, monitor states, and develop expertise. That knowledge and expertise should then be used to create fair and equitable rules for everyone – and in the meantime prevent the formation of corporate oligopolies in the cannabis sector and closely-related ancillary industries.”
The Coalition, which includes more than a dozen groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Drug Policy Alliance, focuses its comments on ensuring cannabis is not simply treated like alcohol or tobacco, but as “an opportunity to build a new model.”
“We recommend an approach that does not just include reparative justice, health equity, and community reinvestment as a subset of a larger policy reform, but rather an approach where these components are the primary goal. Cannabis is not alcohol or tobacco. It is something different. Its health profile is different. The harm caused by decades of prohibition is different. And the complexity of state policy that must align with federal reform in a workable fashion is different. While there are important lessons to draw from the regulation of alcohol and tobacco, this is an opportunity to build a new model for cannabis; to create a better approach,” the Coalition writes.
“There is no reason why federal cannabis reform must allow for unrestrained commercial opportunity, unlimited commercialization, and unrestricted interstate commerce. The goals for federal reform should be clearly articulated–health, equity, economic justice, community reinvestment–and the policy design should be primarily focused on achieving these goals.”
The Association focused on a handful of core priorities, including: ensuring that “the scope of Federal cannabis reform is equal to the harm of federal cannabis prohibition;” ensuring that “a proper foundation to support the equity provisions of the Act is established prior to enactment” and ensuring that these are in place “in advance of interstate commerce” while allowing “existing state-lawful markets to continue undisrupted;” and the creation of grants for community reinvestment, research, training, and other ways to “economically restore and empower the individuals and communities most impacted by the War on Drugs.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on September 6 to include comments from Parabola Center, Marijuana Justice Coalition, and MCBA, and will continue to be updated as more comments are made public.