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Senate to Act on Marijuana Legalization

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been making waves on cannabis policy since he first introduced a bill to legalize marijuana in April 2018. It was part of his pitch for voting Democrat in the 2020 election, and now — with the majority in hand — he is putting together new federal marijuana reform legislation with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

This week, Schumer’s home state of New York legalized marijuana use for adults, after years of failed efforts. More than 40 percent of Americans now live in states that have embraced full legalization. President Joe Biden has been a conspicuous outlier among Democrats when it comes to supporting marijuana legalization. But Schumer said Biden’s reticence won’t deter the Senate from taking aggressive action to loosen federal restrictions.

“I want to make my arguments to him, as many other advocates will,” Schumer said in an interview this week. “But at some point we're going to move forward, period.“

Schumer pointed to the decade-long experiment with state legalization as evidence that the worst fears of what would happen were overblown. “The legalization of states worked out remarkably well,“ he said. “They were a great success. The parade of horribles never came about, and people got more freedom.“

Schumer was so enthusiastic to get to the cannabis policy discussion that he started sharing his thoughts before a question was posed.

SCHUMER: In 2018, I was the first member of the Democratic leadership to come out in support of ending the federal prohibition. I'm sure you ask, “Well what changed?” Well, my thinking evolved. When a few of the early states — Oregon and Colorado — wanted to legalize, all the opponents talked about the parade of horribles: Crime would go up. Drug use would go up. Everything bad would happen.

The legalization of states worked out remarkably well. They were a great success. The parade of horribles never came about, and people got more freedom. And people in those states seem very happy.

I think the American people started speaking with a clear message — more than two to one — that they want the law changed. When a state like South Dakota votes by referendum to legalize, you know something is out there.

A while back — I can't remember the exact year — I was in Denver. I just started talking to people, not just elected officials, but just average folks.

They said it benefited the state, and didn’t hurt the state. There were tax revenues, but people had freedom to do what they wanted to do, as long as they weren't hurting other people. That's part of what America is about. And they were exultant in it.

What difference does the fact that the Senate is now controlled by Democrats make for legalization, and is 51 votes enough to pass the bill that you're about to propose?

Probably the most important power of the majority leader is the ability to put bills on the floor. And the fact that I am introducing a bill, and the fact that people will know that there will be a vote on this sooner or later — that's the big difference.

Will the Senate move forward even if the president's views do not evolve on this?

We will move forward. He said he's studying the issue, so I obviously want to give him a little time to study it. I want to make my arguments to him, as many other advocates will. But at some point we're going to move forward, period.

New York State will soon have a legal cannabis industry, and banking is going to be a big issue. The SAFE Banking Act has already been reintroduced in the Senate. Are you working with Banking Committee Chairman [Sherrod] Brown to move the SAFE Banking Act this Congress?

We've talked to the Banking Committee, and we certainly want to make sure that the communities that [have] most been affected by this — over the scheduling of marijuana — get some of the benefits here. But we have to figure out the right way to do that.

Chairman Brown has said that standalone cannabis legislation shouldn't move ahead of the comprehensive reform. Do you agree with that statement?

I would like to see it all move together, yes.


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