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Republican Lawmakers Tell Biden To Keep Marijuana Campaign Promise By Reclassifying It Under Federal Law

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is again making clear that he has no intention of advancing a bill to protect banks that work with marijuana businesses before the Senate approves his broader, newly unveiled measure to federally legalize cannabis.

The senator—who recently released a draft version of the legislation alongside Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR)—solicited feedback on the proposal on Twitter. But of the dozens of comments, he chose to respond to four for now, and most of those concerned marijuana banking legislation.

Booker has maintained a firm opposition to passing the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act before advancing comprehensive reform. He reiterated that point last week, saying he “will lay myself down” to block the incremental policy change before full legalization is enacted.

“I’m telling you right now, if somebody tries in the Senate to do just a banking bill,” Booker said, it would only accomplish further enriching of people in a multi-billion industry without addressing the harms of the drug war.

The senator’s stance was cheered by some social justice advocates who worry that a banking-only bill will bolster the industry while leaving equity concerns unaddressed and jeered by others who say that if only the incremental reform is achievable now it should be pursued while broader efforts continue.

Booker responded to three questions about the controversy on Monday. The senator was pressed on the fact that there may not be enough votes in the Senate to approve a federal legalization bill, but the SAFE Banking Act has bipartisan support and a clearer pathway to passage.

“How can you block #SafeBanking when Safe is desperately needed to hurt black markets & be inclusive to minority communities + usher in social justice reforms?” cannabis investor Jason Spatafora asked. “Safe has GOP sponsors & there is an urgent need to protect small business owners being robbed for cash.”

Booker didn’t directly address the question but said lawmakers “can both address the pressing need for cannabis businesses to access financial institutions and provide real restorative justice for those harmed by the War on Drugs. This is not a zero-sum game.”

Another person said, “I feel that the [legalization] bill will not have enough votes to pass” and, “I think incremental steps may be the way forward such as expunging records, SAFE, elimination of [tax restrictions].”

“How do you see a path forward if it’s all or nothing?” he asked.

“By going comprehensive & setting up a post-legalization system we believe we can build support & make progress on this issue,” the senator replied. “SAFE Banking lacks critical restorative justice provisions & we must do more to help communities unfairly impacted by the War on Drugs.”

In a third question, a person asked: “How is the middle class/poor folk supposed to invest in cannabis in States where it is legal if you won’t pass #safebanking? How are we supposed to get funded for retail stores or grow operations? How can we collect money from sales?”

Again, Booker made the case that ending prohibition “fixes the banking issue.”

“Additionally, our legislation would create a grant program to help small cannabis businesses owned by socially and economically disadvantaged people,” he said.

But that’s not quite the point that the three Twitter users were making. The senator declined to address the elephant in the room: it’s quite possible that the wide-ranging legalization bill will not garner the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate, even while Democrats hold a narrow majority. The SAFE Banking Act, which has passed in some form in the House four times at this point, and enjoys bipartisan support, stands a significantly better chance at passage and could resolve certain issues while lawmakers continue to push for broader reform.

The new legalization legislation was not included as part of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that Senate Democrats agreed to last week. And Schumer recognized at the press conference that “we don’t have the votes necessary at this point” to pass cannabis legalization even with a reduced 50-vote threshold under the fiscal maneuver.

During Monday’s Twitter session, Booker did take a fourth, non-banking question.

“How can we establish a market that is equitable and allows businesses of all sizes to thrive?” the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR), a group backed by large alcohol and tobacco companies, asked.

“Establishing a market that is equitable is a central component of our bill,” Booker responded. “The bill would create a grant program run by the Small Business Administration to assist small marijuana businesses owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.”

The senator encouraged Twitter users to continue to submit questions on the proposal and said he would continue to answer some throughout the week.

Other questions that Booker has not yet address touch on issues such as state control vs. national legalization, provisions allowing federal agencies to continue drug testing employees for marijuana and whether there is a plan to actually get the votes needed to pass the legislation.

The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, an extensive, 163-page document, would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge prior convictions, allow people to petition for resentencing, maintain the authority of states to set their own marijuana policies and remove collateral consequences like immigration-related penalties for people who’ve been criminalized over the plant.

Under the proposal, a gradual federal tax rate would be imposed on marijuana sales, starting at 10 percent for the first year after the bill’s enactment and the first, subsequent calendar year.

Then it would be increased annually, rising from 15 percent to 20 percent to 25 percent. Starting in the fifth year post-enactment, the tax would be a “per-ounce or per-milligram of THC amount determined by the Secretary of the Treasury equal to 25 percent of the prevailing price of cannabis sold in the United States in the prior year.”

The legislation immediately drew mixed reactions from advocates, other lawmakers and the White House.

Minutes after the senators’ press conference to unveil the bill, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked at her own daily briefing about the administration’s position on the legislation.

“Nothing has changed,” regarding President Joe Biden’s longstanding opposition to legalizing marijuana, “and there’s no new endorsements of legislation to report today,” she said.

The sponsors have made clear they are open to suggestions for how the draft proposal can be improved, and they are actively inviting public feedback. For example, they’re especially interested in hearing about measuring cannabis potency, coordinating federal and state law enforcement responsibilities and balancing efforts to reduce barriers to entry to the marijuana industry while mitigating the influence of illicit cannabis operators.

Interested parties are encouraged to submit comments on these and other issues to [email protected] by September 1.

The hope is that the public comment period will help build buy-in from stakeholders and lawmakers, getting them closer to the 60-vote threshold they need to pass the legislation in the Senate. By the looks of it, it’s going to be a tough battle that will require significant negotiations to push legalization across the finish line in the chamber.

In recent months, Schumer has been making the case for reform everywhere from a speech on the Senate floor on 4/20 to a cannabis rally in New York City.

The three senators formally started their efforts on the legalization bill by holding a meeting earlier this year with representatives from a variety of advocacy groups to gain feedback on the best approach to the reform.

Schumer made a point in March to say that it will specifically seek to restrict the ability of large alcohol and tobacco companies to overtake the industry. Instead, it will prioritize small businesses, particularly those owned by people from communities most impacted by prohibition, and focus on “justice, justice, justice—as well as freedom,” he said.

He also urged voters to reach out to their congressional representatives and tell them that “this is long overdue.”

Meanwhile, a separate House bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity in the industry was reintroduced in May.

The legislation, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was filed with a number of changes compared to the version that was approved by the chamber last year.

The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act passed the House but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control. But this time around, advocates are optimistic that the policy change could be enacted now that Democrats run both chambers and the White House, and as more states are moving to enact legalization.

President Joe Biden, however, is an outlier within the Democratic Party, maintaining an opposition to adult-use legalization despite the widespread and increasingly bipartisan public popularity of the reform. It remains to be seen whether the president—who campaigned on more modest pledges to decriminalize cannabis possession, expunge prior records and respect state legalization laws—would stand in the way of a comprehensive policy change by threatening to veto the bill that’s ultimately produced.

Wyden, who under the chamber’s new Democratic majority assumed the top spot on the Senate Finance Committee—where the new legislation is likely to be referred once formally introduced—recently said his goal will be to “end the prohibition and come up with sensible tax and regulatory oversight at the federal level.”

He said in February that “it’s not enough in my view to just end cannabis prohibition,” and “I think we need to restore the lives of people who’ve been hurt most by the failed war on drugs and especially black Americans.”

All three senators—Schumer, Wyden and Booker—have in past years introduced marijuana legalization bills that never got hearings or votes.

Separately, a proposal to federally deschedule marijuana that does not include social equity components was recently filed by a pair of Republican congressmen.

Missouri Marijuana Activists File Legalization Initiatives For 2022 As Other Groups Prepare Separate Measures

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