Blog Post

Unprecedented Action in Congress Sends Signals that Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Could Finally Become Reality

Michael Liszewski

Marijuana reform in Congress has gained substantial momentum in 2018 and June was no exception. 

Beginning with the introduction of the bipartisan STATES Act from Senators Warren and Gardner, to the Joyce/Leahy medical marijuana amendment (formerly known as Rohrabacher-Blumenauer) passing at the committee level through non-controversial voice votes, it appears that many in Congress are finally joining their constituents in supporting marijuana reform. 

This week Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, further propelling federal marijuana reform into the political mainstream. 

Just a few short years ago it would have been inconceivable to imagine a leader of one of two major parties introduce a bill to de-schedule and decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. Prior to 2015, there had only been one relatively narrow marijuana reform bill introduced in the Senate since states began legalizing medical marijuana in 1996. The 2015 introduction of the CARERS Act by Senator Booker showed that medical marijuana had entered the political mainstream – but the common refrain heard around the halls of Congress was that progress on broader marijuana legalization was still many years away. 

And yet, here we are in the very next session of Congress with several bills that would end federal marijuana prohibition introduced in the Senate by prominent members of both parties. The introduction of the STATES Act demonstrated that the issue has become bipartisan, with five Republican senators co-sponsoring the bill with an equal number of Democrats. 

And it’s not just Republicans from legal marijuana states who have put their name to the bill, with Senators Paul and Flake from Kentucky and Arizona signing on. Even long-time marijuana reform opponent, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has agreed to cosponsor the bill. With a growing number of Republicans joining Democrats on marijuana reform, the conversation is shifting from “if we will end federal marijuana prohibition” to “how we will end it.”  

To that end, the Schumer bill takes a fairly comprehensive approach to ending federal marijuana prohibition. In addition to de-scheduling and decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level, the bill would provide small business loans to women and socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. To begin repairing the harms of marijuana prohibition, the bill would also create a grant program to cover the costs of expunging and sealing marijuana possession offenses at the state level, with 50% of the funds dedicated to public defenders and legal aid providers. This grant program would be tremendously helpful as financial burdens are often the biggest hurdle to expunging eligible marijuana offenses at the state level. 

Having the minority leader include these types of provisions in his bill signals to the party that reparative justice is a must in any future Democratic-led marijuana de-scheduling bill. 

While the Schumer bill takes a small but meaningful step towards reparative justice, Senator Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act takes a more comprehensive approach toward addressing the decades-long disaster of marijuana prohibition. 

In addition to removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, the Marijuana Justice Act would create automatic expungement for federal marijuana possession offenses and reinvests money in the communities most affected by the drug war. 

The reparative components of the Booker and Schumer bills are important because of the vicious and disproportionate enforcement of marijuana prohibition in communities of color. Since President Nixon initiated the war on drugs, Black and Brown communities have borne the brunt of its devastation. As The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander observed in an influential 2014 event hosted by DPA: 

Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?

Reparative justice provisions are a vital first step toward beginning to repair the vast inter-generational harms inflicted by the mass criminalization of marijuana.

The most important thing advocates can do from now until November is help to ensure that the politicians they elect to Congress enthusiastically support a comprehensive and equitable end to federal marijuana prohibition. Advocates should continue to call, write, and meet with their senators and representatives to educate members on the importance of not only ending marijuana prohibition, but repairing the harms created by its criminalization – and urge them to sign on to bills like the Marijuana Justice Act. 

If advocates put in this important legwork in 2018, ending federal marijuana prohibition in the 2019-2020 session of Congress will be a realistic possibility.