Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, introduced legislation Wednesday to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, vowing to use his clout as majority leader toward reversing policies and laws that he says have caused significant harm to the lives of thousands of Americans.
The draft bill, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon, would remove federal penalties associated with cannabis, expunge nonviolent federal cannabis-related criminal records, and begin regulating and taxing the drug.
“This is monumental, because, at long last, we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs,” Schumer said at a Capitol Hill news conference. “I was the first Democratic leader to come out for the legalization of marijuana.”
Public support for legalizing marijuana is high, with 91 percent of Americans saying marijuana should be legal in some form, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. Even Clarence Thomas, one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative justices, recently wrote that federal laws against marijuana use or cultivation may no longer make sense.
“A prohibition on intrastate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the Federal Government’s piecemeal approach,” he wrote in June.
And while 18 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have made adult recreational use of small amounts of marijuana legal, people’s changing opinions about the drug have yet to translate into majority support in Congress.
While a similar bill to decriminalize marijuana passed the Democratic-controlled House last December with bipartisan support, no Republican has expressed backing for such a move in the Senate.
Schumer acknowledged that reality, telling reporters that he didn’t have the votes but hoped that the draft legislation would attract proponents.
“For decades, young men and young women, disproportionately young Black and Hispanic men and women, have been arrested and jailed for carrying even a small amount of marijuana in their pocket, a charge that often came with exorbitant penalties and a serious criminal record because of the overcriminalization of marijuana, and it followed them for the remainder of their lives,” Schumer said.
Said Wyden: “This is cannabis common sense.”
Booker spoke about the importance of expunging records because of the effects they have on the lives of those who have been convicted of violating marijuana drug laws.
“And the hypocrisy of this is that, right here in the Capitol now, people running for Congress, people running for Senate, people running for president of the United States readily admit that they’ve used marijuana,” he said. “But we have children in this country, people all over this nation — our veterans, Black and brown people, low-income people — now bearing the stain of having a criminal conviction for doing things that half of the last four presidents admitted to doing.”
The bill also would give states the power to decide whether they want to legalize the drug and would follow the path of several states in terms of reclassifying or removing marijuana from the federal schedule of controlled substances. Marijuana is federally classified as a dangerous drug with no legitimate medicinal use, despite laws in three dozen states allowing the medical use of cannabis.
Schumer’s bill would placate liberals who argue that criminalizing marijuana continues to be systemically discriminatory against people of color and low-income Americans while further harming a country rethinking the effects of mass incarceration.
Schumer is hoping to win the support of Republicans and reticent Democrats fearful about relaxing state laws by funding federal research into the effect of cannabis on the brain and drugged driving, as well as collecting data on violent crime, traffic deaths, and other public health issues that GOP lawmakers often cite while protesting the loosening of marijuana laws.
But finding 10 GOP lawmakers to support Schumer’s bill and getting all 50 Democrats to sign on will be a challenge.
“What’s he been smoking?” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, quipped in April when told of Schumer’s wishes.