US marijuana legalization advocates in ‘waiting game’ on Schumer bill

U.S. marijuana legislation

It’s been more than two months since Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledged to tackle federal marijuana legalization, but so far there’s been little in the way of details made known about what the Democrat’s bill might include.

Moreover, no specific timeline has been announced for when the bill could be introduced, let alone voted on.

The apparent hurry-up-and-wait situation comes after Schumer recently told Politico the legislation would be unveiled “soon” and that Democrats would move forward with comprehensive marijuana reform regardless of whether President Joe Biden embraces the idea.

Though Schumer’s staff reiterated the “soon” timeline to Marijuana Business Daily, MJ advocates have speculated the bill could be unveiled on or around April 20. But that’s far from certain.

“He does keep saying in public interviews he’s going to bring up the bill ‘shortly’ and ‘soon’ and ‘in coming weeks,'” said David Mangone, a principal at the Washington DC-based Liaison Group, which lobbies Congress on marijuana reform on behalf of the National Cannabis Roundtable.

“In Congress, that could mean truly in coming weeks, or it could mean we’ll see what the agenda looks like a month from now with other priorities,” Mangone said. “We’re all playing a waiting game.”

That uncertainty likely has some industry members biting their fingernails in anticipation, given that many marijuana advocates have been bullish that the current two-year congressional session might be the one in which federal prohibition finally crumbles.

For now, advocates are in a holding pattern, particularly in the wake of Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent acknowledgement that marijuana reform isn’t yet a priority for the Biden administration.

Past bills might hold hints, hurdles

Schumer has been working with Democratic cohorts Cory Booker and Ron Wyden of New Jersey and Oregon, respectively.

Mike Correia, the head lobbyist for the DC-based National Cannabis Industry Association, said the three senators and their staffers have been soliciting input from stakeholders such as NCIA and other marijuana reform groups, which they’ve been happy to provide.

While the senators and their staffers have kept the details of Schumer’s bill confidential, they have said they’ll be releasing a working draft and will then take more feedback from stakeholders. That will be the next step in the legislative process.

After that might come committee hearings, so it could easily be months – or even well into 2022 – before substantial progress is made in the Senate on Schumer’s bill.

Correia said it’s likely the bill that emerges will be a of combination of legislation run in the past by all three senators in the 2019-20 Congressional session:

  • Schumer’s Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would have removed MJ from the list of controlled substances, established a trust fund for minority-owned cannabis businesses and authorized federal restrictions on MJ product advertising.
  • Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which also would have descheduled MJ, eliminated all criminal penalties for trafficking in the drug, reduced federal funds for states that haven’t legalized and established a federal fund to support communities affected by the war on drugs.
  • Wyden’s Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act, a third bill that would have descheduled MJ. It would have gone much further in regulating the marijuana industry by establishing national MJ taxes and a regulatory framework for businesses.

“They’re not being cagey, but I think the three Senate offices are trying to work out between the three of them what they want this to look like,” Correia said.

That also means there could be delays in introducing a comprehensive bill because U.S. marijuana reform is complicated, particularly if lawmakers try to tackle a federal MJ regulatory system and a potential tax.

“There may be some discussions on regulations, what regulations look like, because Wyden had his regulatory bill,” Correia said. “So they may be doing some cutting and pasting with that.

“There could be some issues on taxes. I think they want a higher tax rate. Some of these (lawmakers) are looking at this as a revenue-raiser.”

But he emphasized that, at this point, he’s speculating, and he said that – like everyone else – he and his team are waiting to see what gets put forth.

“From the Senate offices, what we’ve been hearing is, ‘Listen, we’re going to drop our discussion draft, and when we drop it, let’s comment,'” Correia said. “So we’re sort of waiting.”

Other marijuana bills: SAFE, MORE

Schumer’s bill is far from the only marijuana reform measure Congress will be taking up during this two-year session.

The SAFE Banking Act – which would guarantee immunity from federal blowback for any financial institutions that work with cannabis companies and which the House passed last year – has already been reintroduced in both chambers. In the process, the measure has garnered impressive bipartisan support.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter’s H.R. 1996, the SAFE Banking Act of 2021, has accumulated 151 cosponsors out of 435 House members, including 129 Democrats and 22 Republicans.

And Sen. Jeff Merkley’s S. 910, the Senate counterpart version of SAFE Banking, has won 31 cosponsors – 22 Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents.

Another version of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act also is on the way.

The marijuana descheduling bill won approval in the House in 2020 but died in the Senate. It has yet to be introduced in the upper chamber.

“These bills are taking a little bit longer than everyone anticipated to see get introduced, but we’re optimistic still that we will see some substantial reform in this session,” said Steve Hawkins, the interim CEO of the U.S. Cannabis Council and the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington DC.

In the meantime, Hawkins said, the U.S. Cannabis Council – just like NCIA and other groups – has been engaging members of Congress to judge their support for various marijuana reform measures.

That includes the possibility of removing the federal budget rider by Maryland Republican Rep. Andrew Harris that for years has prevented the District of Columbia from authorizing adult-use cannabis sales.

Washington DC voters legalized recreational marijuana possession in 2014, but retail sales have remained prohibited because of Harris’ budget rider.

“This year is hopefully the year to get the Harris rider removed. It’s an injustice to the voters of the District of Columbia,” Hawkins said.

Correia added that he’s still optimistic about the current session, even if other political priorities – such as getting the coronavirus pandemic under control and passing the White House’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan – derail any hopes of getting Schumer’s comprehensive marijuana reform bill across the finish line.

“We have to strike while the iron is hot,” Correia said. “I just hope people are realistic with their expectations.

“If Congress isn’t ready for MORE, then let’s move on SAFE.”

John Schroyer can be reached at john.schroyer@mjbizdaily.com.