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U.S. Senate Democrats launch renewed push for full marijuana legalization • New Jersey Monitor

Leading Democrats in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday reintroduced a bill to remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances, following the Biden administration's decision a day earlier to significantly loosen regulations on the drug.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey welcomed the Justice Department's announcement at a news conference Wednesday to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Federal Control Act to shift constitutive law.

But they said that would not solve problems, including racial discrimination, created by the federal ban.

Instead, they supported a bill that would remove cannabis entirely from the Controlled Substances Act while adding new federal regulations and oversight.

The bill “will help our country put an end once and for all to the terrible, harmful and failed war on drugs, which has too often been nothing more than a war against Americans of color,” Schumer said. “In short, our bill is about individual freedom and fundamental justice.”

Most Americans believe cannabis should be legalized, Schumer said.

The move, announced Tuesday by the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration, will ease some of the toughest restrictions on marijuana use under Schedule I, which lists the most dangerous and easy-to-abuse drugs with no medical value.

Schedule III medications, which include Tylenol with codeine and anabolic steroids, are permitted to be examined and dispensed under certain guidelines.

DOJ's move isn't enough, Democrats say

The Justice Department's announcement on Tuesday did not go far enough, the trio said at a news conference on Wednesday, and should be seen as a potential starting point for further reforms.

“We want to disabuse people of the idea that things are at a standstill here in the United States Congress because the White House moved yesterday,” Wyden said. “I see this as an opportunity to give our bill new momentum for action on Capitol Hill.”

Fifteen other Senate Democrats co-sponsored the bill.

Communities of color and small businesses

The senators said the federal ban has disproportionately harmed communities of color, even though many states have legalized medical or recreational use.

“I think it's a big step that the Biden administration is moving in the direction of not making this a Schedule I drug – the absurdity of that is outrageous,” Booker said. “But frankly, the bill we are reintroducing today is the solution to this long, torturous, hypocritical and, frankly, unevenly enforced series of bad laws.”

The federal ban has also blocked tax breaks for marijuana businesses, including small independent businesses that Wyden, chairman of the Finance Committee's tax policy, is eager to help.

Wyden said he was pleased to see a provision in the bill that allows state-legal marijuana businesses access to a common tax break that allows small businesses to deduct business expenses.

Since marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, the federal tax break was not even available to businesses operating under a state license. Wyden said small independent businesses are being “really overburdened” under the current system. He indicated that his committee would look for additional ways to reduce the tax burden on “small mom-and-pop businesses.”

Senators did not answer a question about whether the legalization bill should be considered alongside a separate bill to give state-legal marijuana businesses greater access to the banking system. Many banks refuse to do business with marijuana companies for fear they could be punished for aiding drug trafficking.

New regulatory framework

The bill would automatically expunge federal marijuana-related convictions, direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a program to help people who have lost access to housing assistance due to marijuana convictions, and establish a cannabis justice office within of the US Department of Justice.

According to a summary from Schumer's office, the funds would be directed to an Opportunity Trust Fund to help people and individuals who have been “most harmed by the failed war on drugs.” It would prohibit the use of cannabis against noncitizens in immigration proceedings and prevent other federal benefits from being withheld from people who use the drug.

While the bill would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, it would establish new federal oversight and make the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau the federal agency with jurisdiction over the drug.

The bill would establish a federal Cannabis Products Center to regulate the production, sales, distribution and other elements of the cannabis industry, direct the Food and Drug Administration to establish labeling standards and create programs to prevent marijuana use among youth.

It would also maintain a federal ban on marijuana sales outside of state legal markets, require the Department of Transportation to develop standards for driving under the influence of cannabis, and require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to collect data and produce educational materials on driving under the influence of cannabis.

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Anna Harden

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