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In a landmark decision that some still see as a long-shot, Democratic senators have released a draft of a bill that would decriminalize cannabis nationwide.
In what they call an effort to end the unfair targeting and treatment of communities of color, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) unveiled the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act on July 14.
The discussion draft is not yet a bill. It’s simply a tool to get the conversation moving, and Congress is seeking public input on the draft through September. If it’s made into law, though, it would remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, empower states to implement their own cannabis laws, and seek to end the war on drugs by ensuring Americans cannot be arrested or barred from public housing or financial aid for using cannabis where it’s legal, according to a press release.
Cannabis legal in most states
As of July, 2021, 18 states, Washington D.C. and a few territories have legalized recreational cannabis and 37 have legalized some form of medical cannabis. Recognizing the overwhelming support among Americans, the legislation goes beyond merely decriminalizing the herb, which has been used for thousands of years.
Not only would the bill allow cannabis to be regulated and taxed, giving business owners the opportunity to finally access banks, loans and credit , but the bill would also expunge federal non-violent cannabis convictions and allow those currently in prison over the plant to petition for resentencing.
“The War on Drugs has too often been a war on people, and particularly people of color. Not only will this legislation remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, but it will also help fix our criminal justice system, ensure restorative justice, protect public health, and implement responsible taxes and regulations,” Majority Leader Schumer said in a statement.
Proposal would regulate cannabis like alcohol
The proposal draft shares similarities with another bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (the MORE Act) that was reintroduced to the House by Rep. Jerry Nadler earlier this year.
Regulation of the industry would be treated like alcohol, with enforcement being moved away from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to protect public health.
Moreover, revenue generated by federal taxes will support restorative justice and public health and safety research.
Economic Benefits of legalization
Per the discussion draft, the minimum age to purchase cannabis would be 21, and the maximum amount anyone can purchase at one time would be 10 ounces.
The federal excise tax would start at 10% for the first year, before gradually moving up to 25% within five years after the law is enacted, with smaller cannabis producers being eligible for a tax credit.
In providing a tax credit, the discussion draft seeks to lower the barrier to entry in an industry that is expected to reach $100 billion by 2030.
The economic benefits that states have already witnessed is undeniable. Oklahoma’s medical cannabis industry alone has accrued more than $77 million in all combined taxes for 2021 so far, according to the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority.
Beyond the economic benefits, the three Democratic senators who wrote the draft want to include restorative justice and repair, especially for Black and brown communities that have long been targets of the War on Drugs.
“For decades, our federal government has waged a War on Drugs that has unfairly impacted low-income communities and communities of color,” Senator Cory Booker said. “While red and blue states across the country continue to legalize marijuana, the federal government continues to lag woefully behind. It is time for Congress to end the federal marijuana prohibition and reinvest in communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs.”
“I am proud to introduce this landmark piece of legislation with Senator Wyden and Majority Leader Schumer that will finally turn the page on this dark chapter in American history and begin right-wing these wrongs,” Booker added.
U.S. history of cannabis prohibition
President Richard Nixon is largely credited with launching the war on drugs with his infamous 1971 speech declaring drugs “public enemy number one”.
A few years ago, media reports detailed a decades-old interview with an aide to Nixon who admitted the real purpose of the drug war was to fight Black Americans and hippies, following the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.
Yet, the tense relationship between cannabis and U.S. drug laws started decades earlier.
The 1910 Mexican Revolution created a wave of migrants to the U.S. who brought with them a plant they called “marihuana.” It was little-known to Americans at the time. However, as more migrants arrived, and as the herb became more widely used, racist fears that it gave minorities a “lust for blood” seeped into the psyche of the federal government.
By the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics used the racist tropes to launch a full-scale war against cannabis. Claiming the herb caused African Americans and Mexicans to think they’re as good as White men and that the herb would cause White women to lay with Black men, Anslinger gained support for and eventually passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, effectively making cannabis illegal across the United States.
Though the law was eventually found unconstitutional and replaced with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, the U.S. has never enforced the law equitably. Black Americans continue to be arrested at disproportionate rates despite using the herb at similar rates to White Americans.
Public can submit public comment on cannabis proposal until Sept. 1, 2021
Black Americans are nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis-related crime, according to a 2018 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.).
Most recently, a report came out this year detailing 2020 arrest rates in liberal New York City. It found that people of color accounted for 94% of cannabis-related arrests.
The legislation that the discussion draft is proposing would undo nearly a century-worth of harmful, racist drug laws targeted directly at Black and brown communities.
Noting this fact, the drafters have included an “Opportunity Trust Fund” funded by federal cannabis tax revenue to “reinvest in the communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs, as well as helping to level the playing field for entrepreneurs of Color who continue to face barriers of access to the industry.”
Those interested in providing comment on the proposal can email Cannabis_Reform@finance.senate.gov anytime between now and September 1, 2021.