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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his colleagues have been clear that they plan to advance the conversation about federal cannabis reform this year. In the coming months, Senate Democrats will formally introduce the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). It is a long-awaited, comprehensive reform bill that will establish a federal regulatory and tax structure for cannabis and remove the product from the federal list of controlled substances. Once introduced, the legislation will spur a flurry of meaningful conversations about cannabis reform in the United States Senate.
Once introduced, Senate Majority Leader Schumer, and his fellow bill drafters and policy hawks—Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and John Hickenlooper (D-CO)—will need to shore up support from the entire Senate Democratic Caucus and 10 Republicans to secure passage. These Senators have already begun socializing the bill with both Senate Democrats and Republicans, as garnering full support is not an overnight task.
One of the challenges is pro-cannabis policymakers often agree on principle, but have competing strategies and priorities relating to federal cannabis legislation. Criminal justice reform or banking access often remain top, individual priorities for several Members of Congress, while others want a suite of all comprehensive reforms, including banking/financial services, social equity, research, and youth prevention, among other issues. Additionally, the current administration remaining somewhat quiet on the issue does not help resolve this quandary on legislative strategy. On the Republican side, GOP Members of Congress have yet to wholly embrace the issue, but some are slowly coming along as states continue to move ahead on their own.
Regardless of these fault lines, federal cannabis reform has been widely understood to be a unifying issue for the Democratic Party—which is unsurprising given that 70 percent of Americans support legalization in some form. Congressional Democrats have indeed come a long way on this issue, as states have moved forward with their own legislation.
When former President Barack Obama stepped into office in 2009, only 13 states had legalized medical cannabis, and not a single state allowed for recreational adult-use cannabis. Today, 37 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis, and the total number of states to legalize recreational adult-use cannabis has risen to 18.
This large-scale change across states over the past decade has been driven by increasing mainstream support for the emergence of a well-regulated legal federal cannabis market. Further, federal lawmakers have opportunities to learn from the states in crafting a federal policy.
For instance, former Colorado Governor, and now U.S. Senator, John Hickenlooper (D-CO) previously stood up an effective regulatory system that underpins the robust market for Colorado that exists today. His experience is critical to Senators Schumer, Wyden, and Booker as they continue to finalize various aspects of the forthcoming CAOA bill and as the Senate pursues other legislative opportunities to improve public health, safety, banking and workforce development relating to cannabis. Senator Hickenlooper is certainly a name to also watch as the debate continues, given his first-hand experience and expertise.
As a result of such senator-level familiarity and expertise with state-led reform, federal cannabis-related legislation has become an increasingly mainstream federal issue for the Democratic Party. During the 117th Congress and 116th Congress, there have been over 30 pieces of cannabis-related legislation introduced between the House and the Senate.
Amid the increased attention on cannabis reform in Congress over the years, there have been some milestones thanks to Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY-10), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-03), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO-07) and Dave Joyce (R-OH-14). The bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act has passed the U.S. House of Representatives six times to date. The House in April of 2022 also passed the more sweeping Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, as it did in the last session of Congress. Similar to a previous draft of CAOA, the MORE Act would also remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances and heavily pursues expungements for related federal convictions.
The growing push by congressional Democrats, and even a handful of Republicans, in Congress to overhaul federal cannabis legislation will continue to gain momentum in conjunction with state-led cannabis reform and evolving attitudes towards its use. However, for these efforts to be successful, Democrats will need to align on a bicameral level on which issues to prioritize, and continue working to bring members of the Republican Party on board.