POLITICS

Key Senate Democrats Are Taking The First Step Toward Legalizing Marijuana

President Joe Biden has long opposed marijuana legalization.

Three leading Senate Democrats unveiled an early version of their plans to legalize marijuana on Wednesday, setting up a crucial test of how far the party is willing to go to end and unwind the “war on drugs.” 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Finance chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) released their draft plan to legalize the drug, tax it and invest the revenues “in the communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs.”

Their proposal would also expunge the criminal records of people convicted of nonviolent federal crimes involving marijuana, and transfer responsibility for regulating the drug from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Food and Drug Administration and the wing of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that is charged with gathering excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco. 

The group hopes to gather feedback on the proposal and unveil legislation later this year. 

“The waste of human resources because of the historic over-criminalization of marijuana has been one of the great historic wrongs of the last decades,” Schumer said at a press conference. “We’re going to fight hard to change it.”

Eighteen states have now legalized recreational marijuana use, and public opinion polls indicate a sizable majority of Americans ― 68%, according to a recent poll from Gallup ― now support making the drug legal for recreational use. (The proposal would not preempt state-level laws banning marijuana, meaning advocates would still need to persuade lawmakers or voters in the remaining states to fully legalize the drug.)

Still, there is seemingly little chance of the proposal becoming law in the immediate future. President Joe Biden continues to oppose recreational marijuana legalization while supporting efforts to decriminalize the drug and make it legal for medicinal uses. 

“I’ve spoken in the past about the president’s views on marijuana, and there’s no change,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday when asked about Schumer’s proposal.

It’s also not clear if legalization could earn majority support in either chamber of Congress. Many lawmakers in both parties still see legalization as a fringe cause.

But the importance of the three lawmakers crafting the proposal shows how it could become a model for any eventual legalization effort, and could put political pressure on the White House and other Democrats to embrace the plan.

Schumer is the party’s leader in the Senate, while Wyden chairs the committee charged with writing the tax provisions of any legalization plan. Booker is one of only two Black Democrats in the Senate and is one of the party’s leading spokesmen on criminal justice issues.

The legislation envisions an initial 10% excise tax on marijuana, which would grow by 5 percentage points each year until reaching 25%. However, the first $20 million in sales for any company would be taxed at half the full rate in an effort to boost smaller producers and entrepreneurs.