U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has a seemingly unsolvable puzzle on his desk when it comes to federal marijuana reform.
He doesn’t have enough support in his own party to decriminalize marijuana, even as Republican senators reject his demand that criminal justice reform be included.
Unless Schumer can work magic, marijuana reform is – once again – destined to die during this session of Congress, despite the Democratic Party’s repeated promises to decriminalize, legalize and eventually normalize the plant.
Earlier this month, the House of Representatives once again approved legislation – the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act – that would end the federal government’s prohibition on marijuana.
But the Senate looms over all things cannabis, especially the chamber’s built-in hurdle to passage: 60 votes are required to overcome any filibuster.
Unless Schumer finds the votes in his own party and then decides to blow up the Senate tradition (both are unlikely), whatever bill he unveils will need 60 senators.
Moreover, there appears to be stronger support in Congress to pass cannabis banking reform versus a comprehensive legalization measure.
Schumer, for his part, told the congressional press corps last week his “hope” is to unveil his long-awaited Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act by the end of April.
In addition to legalization, the proposed legislation would allow states to choose their own legalization (or prohibitionist) direction.
Schumer also has said he wants to provide opportunities to small businesses and minorities, not just the “big boys.”
Schumer looks to GOP
The leader knows he needs more votes and is looking across the aisle for allies.
“I reached out already to a few Republicans to see what they want,” Schumer said.
By “a few,” Schumer meant two.
MJBizDaily contacted roughly 20 Republican senators, including all nine GOP co-sponsors of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act – which ensures financial institutions can serve state-legal marijuana businesses without fear of federal reprisal – and found Schumer contacted only Alaska’s Republican senators.
That means the talks are in their infancy, at best.
“Weeks ago, he mentioned to me that he would like to have a conversation about it, and we just haven’t scheduled anything,” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski told MJBizDaily.
“But yeah, he did kind of reach out and said he wants to talk.”
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When the two finally do talk marijuana, Murkowski has one message for Schumer, and it’s all about the SAFE Banking Act she co-sponsored.
“In Alaska, I think, for us right now the biggest issue is banking and just banking,” Murkowski said.
Still, the senior senator from Alaska has no clue what Schumer is proposing.
“He really doesn’t very often take a lead on legislation,” Murkowski said. “In honesty, I’m not as familiar with what Schumer is looking for, so that’s why it probably would be good of me to sit down and find out.”
Schumer also has reached out to Alaska’s junior senator, Dan Sullivan, another co-sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act.
He supports marijuana normalization measures that allow states to decide on whether – and then how – to legalize the plant.
“I think the big core, fundamental issue is: Is this going to be kind of state-led or is it going to be federal on down?” Sullivan told MJBizDaily.
Like most Republicans in states that have legalized marijuana, Sullivan isn’t on board because he likes cannabis.
Rather, he’s all in because his voters like cannabis.
“My state did this in a statewide referendum, right? And so, the people of Alaska spoke, and I’m trying to fulfill their wishes,” Sullivan said.
“The issue I’m emphasizing with Sen. Schumer, I think, is a unifying issue.
“This is also a safety issue. The way businesses have to carry around tens of thousands of dollars in cash because they can’t bank is really dangerous.”
While Schumer has approached Alaska’s Republicans, he hasn’t approached other potential GOP power players, including the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
“No,” Toomey responded when MJBizDaily asked whether he and Schumer had spoken about the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act.
Republican moderates, such as Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah (a devout Mormon who has softened on marijuana since his voters legalized it for some medicinal uses) and Susan Collins of Maine, also haven’t heard from Schumer.
“I’m on SAFE Banking, but I’ve had no discussions with him,” Collins told MJBizDaily.
Why target only the two Alaska senators?
“They appeared to be the most receptive on the Republican side,” Schumer’s office told MJBizDaily.
A spokesperson added that this is only the start, saying the majority leader and his staff are “going to continue to try to do outreach to Republicans.”
Even with Schumer apparently casting a small net, Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown dismissed suggestions the majority leader is buying time because a bipartisan compromise is impossible as long as Democrats demand criminal justice reform be a part of marijuana reform.
Since Republican Cory Gardner lost his Colorado reelection bid in 2020, Brown argued, the Senate GOP conference has been left without a cannabis point person.
“I haven’t seen anybody really step up,” said Brown, an Ohio Democrat. “They want to do the banks’ business. They want to do their bidding, but that’s not exactly breaking news that Republicans want to help the banks.”
While Republicans dispute Brown’s charge of doing the “bidding” on behalf of financial institutions, most lawmakers – even in anti-marijuana states – have heard from their state’s banks.
“Certainly, I’ve had my bankers, financial institutions interested in this topic,” Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, a member of the Banking Committee, told MJBizDaily.
One Republican itching for financial reform targeted for the cannabis industry has cautionary words for Schumer – even if the majority leader has yet to approach him on the topic.
“We’re just trying to keep everybody on the SAFE Banking Act and not expand it,” Montana Sen. Steve Daines told MJBizDaily. “If we can keep everybody in a limited scope on the SAFE Banking Act, there’s a chance we can get this thing through.”
Daines is the lead Republican sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act.
The more concessions allotted to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the Montana Republican argued, the more complicated-to-impossible the Senate math gets.
Daines, in fact, said any marijuana reform bill would fail with the current Senate makeup if it included criminal justice components championed by progressive Democrats, but that the SAFE Banking Act remains politically viable.
“We have bipartisan support, of course, for the SAFE Banking Act, and we’ve got enough Republican votes that we can get it passed,” Daines noted. “So, let’s take the step.”