Legalizing marijuana is popular with the public, but faces uncertain future in U.S. Senate

Demonstrators hold a flag promoting the legalization of marijuana. Photo: David Shankbone/Flickr

First published by the American Independent Foundation

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer released lengthy draft legislation on Wednesday to legalize marijuana at a federal level, a long-awaited and popular proposal that nonetheless is expected to face steep opposition to passage.

The 163-page draft of the “Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act,” released with the support of Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), decriminalizes marijuana at the federal level and enables the federal government to tax and regulate it. Individual states would still be allowed to prohibit the possession and sale of weed, but Americans in states where it was legal would be free to use and sell marijuana products without fear of federal punishment.

The proposal also includes several provisions to benefit those most impacted by a legacy of the government crackdown on the substance, calling for the immediate expungement of nonviolent arrests and convictions for federal marijuana crimes, and investments in communities harmed by the federal prohibition.

“The War on Drugs has been a war on people—particularly people of color,” the senators said in a statement introducing the draft legislation. “Ending the federal marijuana prohibition is necessary to right the wrongs of this failed war and end decades of harm inflicted on communities of color across the country. But that alone is not enough. As states continue to legalize marijuana, we must also enact measures that will lift up people who were unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs.”

The bill would require the U.S. attorney general to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act within 60 days of its passage, thereby ending over 50 years of federal prohibition. It would also shift responsibilities for regulating marijuana products from the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the Food and Drug Administration, situating it alongside other legal psychoactive substances like alcohol and prescription drugs.

Beyond ending the federal prohibition of weed, the proposal aims to rectify the racist legacy of drug crime enforcement.

“The communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition are benefitting the least from the legal marijuana marketplace,” the bill states, pointing to studies that found that Black Americans were disproportionately more likely to be arrested for marijuana crimes despite comparable usage rates with white people.


In addition to mandating federal districts expunge nonviolent marijuana arrests and convictions, the draft establishes three grants to benefit Americans impacted by discriminatory drug policies.

One would fund services like job training, reentry help, and legal aid for individuals “adversely impacted” by the War on Drugs, to be carried out by a new Cannabis Justice Office within the Justice Department.

Another would empower the Small Business Administration to provide funding to states and localities for loans to small businesses run by “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals” working within the cannabis industry.

The last would establish an “Equitable Licensing Grant Program” to provide money for states and localities to “develop and implement equitable cannabis licensing programs that minimize barriers to cannabis licensing and employment for individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.”

A gradual federal tax rate would be established for cannabis product sales, starting at 10% for the first two years after passage, then growing annually to 15%, 20%, and 25% by the fifth year and on. To support small businesses, a 50% reduction in the tax rate would be available for producers with less than $20 million in sales.

The bill also includes provisions that would benefit millions of Americans, independent of past drug convictions or involvement in the cannabis industry. If passed, the legislation would prevent individuals from being denied federal benefits due to their use or possession of weed. It would also prevent the federal government from revoking an employee’s security clearances just for using cannabis products.

Recent polling has shown overwhelming support for marijuana legalization, with 60% of Americans saying marijuana should be legal for recreational and medical use and even a plurality of Republicans supporting it. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and 18 states plus D.C. allow recreational use by adults.

But support for legalization drops steeply with age, which could spell trouble for the package in the Senate, where the average senator is 64 years old.

Though legalization remains broadly popular, most Republicans continue to oppose it. Moreover, even some Democrats have come out against its legalization, with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NY) telling Politico bluntly in April: “I don’t support legalizing marijuana.”

Another big open question for the proposal: whether President Biden will throw his support behind it. Though Biden has expressed support for decriminalizing marijuana, he hasn’t come out for full legalization. Earlier this year, the White House made headlines by pushing out dozens of young staffers for past marijuana use.

Asked about Biden’s position on the Schumer proposal in Wednesday’s daily briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said only that she’s “spoken in the past about the president’s views on marijuana, and there’s no change.”

“There’s no new endorsements of legislation to report today,” Psaki added.

Yet Schumer (D-NY) has remained optimistic that legalization will pass in some form, projecting optimism in a speech on April 20, the unofficial holiday for marijuana users.

“Hopefully, the next time this unofficial holiday of 4/20 rolls around, our country will have made progress in addressing the massive overcriminalization of marijuana in a meaningful and comprehensive way,” he said.