In one of the clearest signs yet that the politics of marijuana are rapidly shifting in favor of those who support legalization, one of Congress’s most vocal longtime proponents of the war on drugs is filing legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York announced on Thursday that he will soon introduce a bill to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act altogether so that states can set their own policies.
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“The legislation is long overdue,” he said in an interview with VICE News. “I’ve seen too many people’s lives ruined because they had small amounts of marijuana and served time in jail much too long.”
The news comes on the same day that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) joined two other potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in sponsoring even more far-reaching marijuana legislation.
That bill, the Marijuana Justice Act, would not only exempt cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, but would also withhold funding from states that have racially disparate marijuana enforcement rates.
“With this announcement, Senator Schumer has effectively made it clear that a legislative priority for the Democratic Party is to end the federal prohibition of marijuana,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, said. “As Democratic Leader, it is his role to ensure that the caucus as a whole falls in line with this public policy position — a position that is held by more than 60 percent of Americans.”
Schumer’s bill would also “create some funding for minority and women-owned marijuana businesses, provide money for research into overall effects of marijuana and its specific effect on driving impairment,” VICE News reported.
In 2004, Schumer was recognized by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America as a “Guardian of a Drug-Free America” for his work on drug enforcement legislation. In 2011 he sought to crack down on Bitcoin, seeing it as facilitating illegal drug transactions on the Internet.
Schumer first showed signs he was shifting away from his support for outright cannabis prohibition in 2014, when he said during an MSNBC interview that he supported letting states enact their own marijuana laws without federal interference.
Describing states as “laboratories,” he said, “I think having the states experiment is a good idea.”
The next year, in 2015, he started turning that talk into action by signing on as a cosponsor of legislation to allow states implement their own medical cannabis laws without federal interference.
Earlier this year, the Democratic Senate leader criticized the move by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind Obama-era guidance that has generally allowed states to implement marijuana legalization policies.
Now, Schumer is introducing a bill to end the federal war on marijuana altogether.
By removing the drug from the Controlled Substances Act altogether, a process known as descheduling, states will be free to set whatever marijuana laws they want, and people following those laws will be protected from federal intervention as long as their cannabis activity doesn’t cross state lines or violate local policies.
Schumer also told VICE News that he has no problem supporting legalizing marijuana on the state level in New York.
“My personal view is legalization is just fine,” he said. “The best thing to do is let each state decide on its own.”
But Strekal, of NORML, said that simply ending criminalization isn’t enough, and that communities harmed by the drug war should be able to benefit from the newly legal economy.
“As states start dialing back their war on marijuana consumers, it is important that those who were impacted by this oppressive prohibition are able to see previous harms remedied, and be provided the opportunity to participate in the benefits that come along with legalization and regulation,” he said.