- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Senate agenda has gone to pot.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, promised to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana ahead of the August recess, and he has more time to take up the cause now that a miniature “Build Back Better” bill has been largely scrapped.

Democratic senators are drafting legislation that would pair decriminalization of marijuana at the federal level with criminal justice reforms, and they plan to introduce it as early as this week.

“It will be soon,” Sen. Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Democrat and co-author of the legislation, told The Washington Times.

Mr. Schumer has an opening on the agenda now that Sen. Joe Manchin III, a key moderate Democrat from West Virginia, thwarted another attempt to pass a $1 trillion tax-and-spend bill that the party hoped would invigorate its base ahead of the November midterm elections.

Citing inflation concerns, Mr. Manchin announced last week that he won’t support proposed tax increases Democrats hoped to pass to pump more money into Medicare. Mr. Manchin also rejected proposed clean energy tax breaks.

The negotiations with Mr. Manchin were part of Mr. Schumer‘s last-ditch effort to pass a slimmed-down version of President Biden’s economic package by August. The roughly $2 trillion “Build Back Better” plan failed to gain traction earlier this year mostly because of Mr. Manchin’s objections.

With their green energy and economic agenda largely sidelined, Democratic leaders are negotiating a smaller deal that would lower the costs of some prescription drugs and extend an expansion of Obamacare subsidies that are set to expire at the end of the year.

That leaves more room on the Senate schedule for the cannabis bill. Democrats are eager to pass the bill by the end of the year, before a likely Republican takeover of the House majority makes consideration of a pot bill unlikely.

Although a handful of House Republicans approve of legalizing marijuana, a bill would have far too little support to advance in a Republican-led House and would go nowhere if Democrats hand over the gavel in January.

Details of the Senate cannabis measure have yet to be released, but it is expected to include many of the provisions in a comprehensive pot legalization bill that Mr. Schumer and other Democrats drafted a year ago but never formally introduced.

The 2021 measure would have decriminalized marijuana at the federal level by removing it from the government’s list of controlled substances. It would also have provided criminal justice reforms, such as the expungement of records of anyone convicted of a nonviolent marijuana offense. The measure would not have superseded state marijuana laws but ended federal criminalization of cannabis and moved oversight from the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Food and Drug Administration. It would have limited purchases of the drug to those 21 and older and would have imposed a federal excise tax on purchases.

Mr. Booker said the updated draft would include “additions” to last year’s version.

Congressional Democrats, notably Mr. Schumer, have been pledging for more than a year to consider a bill to update the nation’s pot laws.

Recreational sale and use of marijuana are now legal in 18 states, the District of Columbia and Guam, but it is illegal under federal law.

Mr. Biden made federal legalization a campaign promise and in February 2021 pledged to “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.”

The Democratic-led House has voted repeatedly to decriminalize marijuana and prohibit the federal government from penalizing banks that do business with the cannabis industry, but the legislation has never advanced in the Senate.

Mr. Schumer, who took the Senate gavel in January 2021, pledged that the federal legalization of marijuana would be at the top of his agenda.

“As Majority leader, I can set priorities,” Mr. Schumer stated earlier this year. “Comprehensive federal marijuana legalization with justice for the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs — especially communities of color — is a Senate priority.”

Still, Mr. Schumer likely lacks the 10 Republican votes needed to advance a bill to fully legalize pot at the federal level. He is also eyeing a narrower measure centered on the banking provision, which might win over more Republican lawmakers than the broader bill decriminalizing pot.

The annual defense policy and funding authorization bill that passed the House this month included the pot banking provision, known as the SAFE Banking Act. It was sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat.

It was the seventh time the provision passed in the House.

“I’m calling on the Senate to take action for the safety of our communities and success of veteran- and minority-owned businesses across the country,” Mr. Perlmutter said. “It’s time to get this done.”

Cannabis industry watchers say the federal decriminalization measure faces significant hurdles in the Senate, where the 50-50 split means Democrats would need at least 10 Republicans for the bill to survive. Only a handful of Senate Republicans are likely to back it.

The banking bill would win more Republican votes, particularly from lawmakers who represent states where the sale of pot is legal and cash transactions are leading to crime.

The measure would clear the way for cannabis businesses in states that legally sell pot to do business with banks, which is now prohibited under federal law.

Cannabis dispensaries have been seeking access to banking services to reduce cash transactions, which have led to armed robberies and, in several cases, fatal shootings of dispensary workers.

Mr. Schumer, aware that the Senate math may not favor passage of broad decriminalization, has been talking to Republicans about a deal that centers on and perhaps expands the SAFE Banking Act.

“That might be where the action is,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican who has been talking with Mr. Schumer about a bipartisan legislative deal, told The Times.

Alaska legalized pot sales in 2014 and banking laws prohibiting debit card use have made running a cannabis shop dangerous, he said.

“It’s a safety issue,” Mr. Sullivan said. “These guys have to carry around thousands of dollars in cash. If there is a way to coalesce around this common-sense, states-right-oriented approach, rather than a giant, federal, top-down approach, there might be potential. And that is one bill that I think could be the foundation.”

Mr. Sullivan does not support the federal decriminalization of pot.

The narrower bill could also include the HOPE Act, which would make it easier for states to expunge cannabis-related offenses, industry watchers said.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, ending federal criminalization of marijuana over the next decade would “reduce time served by current and future inmates by 37,000 person-years.”

Morgan Fox, political director at NORML, a group that advocates for the legalization of marijuana, said Senate Democrats are concerned they won’t find enough Republicans to pass the broader decriminalization bill before the end of the year. After that, Republicans could take over one or both chambers of Congress.

“In the meantime, the SAFE Banking Act and other incremental reforms, such as the Hope Act, could potentially pass the Senate and would most likely just sail through the House without any problems,” Mr. Fox said.

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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