The three Democrats have all introduced cannabis reform legislation before, but there’s a difference this time: They’ve got real power in the U.S. Senate.
Chuck Schumer is majority leader, if by a slender margin, and Oregon’s Ron Wyden is chairman of the Finance Committee. With New Jersey’s Cory Booker, they’ve vowed to “put forward and advance” a comprehensive bill this year.
“When you have the majority leader, when you have Sen. Booker, and you have the chairman of the Finance Committee, you’re in a position to have something that people haven’t had before,” Wyden said in an interview this week.
Fifteen states have legalized adult-use cannabis, and all but a half-dozen of the rest allow for medical use. But federal prohibition leaves the industry hobbled, and the damage from decades of enforcement that disproportionately targeted people of color remains unaddressed.
In December, the House passed a comprehensive bill championed by Portland Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, but then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ignored it.
“Congressman Blumenauer did a terrific job, and what we’re doing is looking at lessons from the MORE Act, and that is the basis for getting ideas and suggestions on how to proceed in the Senate,” Wyden said.
Wyden has his own bill, S. 420, from 2019, to draw upon as well. The Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act called for removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and instituting a system of taxation and regulation similar to how alcohol is treated.
The three senators have already been in discussion with advocacy groups and plan to release a “discussion draft” early this year.
“We haven’t settled on anything,” Wyden said. “We’ve made it clear that we’re working together, we’re pulling from groups and constituents. When we wrap up the (impeachment) trial, I’ll be coming on the first plane home and getting out and talking to people about this issue.”
Along with looking for tax and banking reform, Oregon’s cannabis industry is eager to market products around the country. With great outdoor growing conditions, a long history with the plant and plenty of established businesses, Oregon’s already substantial industry could become a national juggernaut and an economic boon for the state.
But some states building new industries that would be hard pressed to compete with Oregon cannabis are hoping the wall doesn’t come down soon.
Will the speedy opening of markets be a priority for Wyden?
“As the new chairman of the Finance Committee, I obviously want to take steps to help Oregon,” he said. “There have been lots of policies, federal in nature, and I’m the author of several of them, and Oregon has done well. So obviously, Oregon’s guy on the Senate Finance Committee, the chairman, affects how Oregon fares.”
Wyden also called addressing equity issues “absolutely crucial” to the bill. The MORE Act attempted to do so, but some advocates thought late concessions left it wanting, particularly in failing to allow some past offenders a possible role in a new legal industry.
That highlights the work ahead for the reformers.
Some Republicans support legalization, but not many — just five backed the MORE Act in the House. In the Senate, the picture is even murkier. Despite cannabis acceptance spreading at the state level, getting at least 10 Republicans to support a comprehensive bill — as opposed to more narrowly focused banking reform, or a bill that codifies states’ rights to have legal industries — will be a challenge.
Plus, President Joe Biden hasn’t made reform a top priority (although Vice President Kamala Harris did as a senator).
A big push by advocates will be needed, Wyden suggested.
“I think (the administration) is going to be watching how the Senate lines up,” Wyden said. “The challenge we’re going to have is making sure that the grassroots are mobilized.”
-Portland Business Journal