Expectations are wavering over a Senate cannabis legalization bill that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) promised would be introduced in April. Now lawmakers have pushed the timeline back to later in the summer as continued debate threatens the bill’s success.
The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) has been pushed back ostensibly to give lawmakers time to debate certain provisions “with the assistance of nearly a dozen Senate committees and input from numerous federal agencies,” said Schumer, according to Marijuana Moment. Experts say the bill’s support follows party lines and that Schumer won’t have enough Republican votes to push the bill across the finish line. The Senate majority leader has said he is reaching across party lines to gain support for the bill, but its chances seem slim.
Earlier this month the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act passed in the House, although it’s not expected to do very well in the Senate. It faced partisan opposition, receiving only three Republican votes. Schumer’s bill appears to be facing opposition not only from Republican lawmakers, but even those in his own party.
Courting the GOP
The biggest hurdle for the CAOA will be gaining the 60 votes necessary to sidestep a Republican filibuster. This could be tough considering members of his own party have shown reservations in supporting the bill in recent weeks. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) voiced skepticism over the bill earlier this month, telling The Hill that he supports medical cannabis but is unsure about legalizing adult-use marijuana.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said she wasn’t ready to pass the bill either. “I have concerns about recreational marijuana, given the substance abuse crisis we have in this country, and we have an issue in New Hampshire and the lack of comprehensive data on how people are affected,” she said.
Without the support of these two Democrats, Schumer will have to somehow gain at least 12 Republican votes for CAOA—an incredible feat requiring Herculean effort. It’s expected that most Republican Senators will vote against the bill. Schumer told reporters recently that he was reaching out to GOP leaders to talk about a compromise.
But MJ Biz Daily reports that those talks do not appear to have happened yet. Reporters contacted around 20 GOP leaders, including the sponsors of the SAFE Act, and found that Schumer had only contacted Alaska’s Republican senators to discuss the bill.
“Weeks ago, he mentioned to me that he would like to have a conversation about it, and we just haven’t scheduled anything,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters. “But yeah, he did kind of reach out and said he wants to talk.”
Schumer’s response to Republican opposition seems unlikely to move the needle in the debate. As it stands, the Democratic Party will once again fail to deliver on its promises regarding cannabis reform. In response to the situation, Schumer says the bill will be introduced before the August recess rather than before the end of April.
Some key policies that are being debated by Senators include: the removal of pre-employment cannabis testing requirements for federal employees in positions that aren’t safety-sensitive; ensuring worker protections for cannabis company employees; the use of Small Business Administration programs to prop up cannabis companies; and clarifying the rules regarding Tribal sovereignty when it comes to cannabis laws.
Critics of earlier drafts of the bill will be happy to find that some of the most contentious issues are being addressed. These include bolstering law enforcement agencies with extra resources, reviewing environmental laws specific to cannabis production and outlining specific duties of the Cannabis Products Advisory Committee, a new consultation group that will be created by the FDA to advise on regulation policy.
Notably, lawmakers are also discussing market regulations that are aimed at protecting retailers from anti-competitive behavior while maintaining the integrity of current state social equity programs.
These discussions won’t likely lead to any material results this year if Schumer fails to drum up more support, but they will absolutely color all subsequent attempts to pass similar legislation in the future.
SAFE Banking Boon
Interestingly, the failure of CAOA might prove helpful to the SAFE Banking Act, another cannabis bill up for a vote this year. Schumer and his colleagues who have been working on the CAOA have repeatedly said they would keep the SAFE Banking bill from advancing if the legalization bill didn’t get a fair shake. The banking bill would protect financial institutions from federal prosecution if they choose to work with cannabis companies.
In July 2021, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said he would block the SAFE Banking Act from pushing through ahead of broader reform. “I will lay myself down to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill that’s going to allow all these corporations to make a lot more money off of this instead of focusing on restorative justice aspects,” he said.
The senators have argued that allowing the SAFE Banking bill to pass would relieve political pressure on lawmakers to legalize. But the bill has bipartisan support—something the CAOA most definitely does not have. The House vote on the banking bill last April won with 106 Republican votes.
Schumer’s staunch opposition to the passage of the SAFE Banking bill and his apparent lack of interest in reaching across the aisle on his own bill beg the question: Is Schumer actually interested in seeing any significant cannabis reform, or is he using the talking point as a way to mark opposition as “anti-cannabis”—cleverly gaining clout as a marijuana warrior publicly while maintaining the status quo privately? Unfortunately, if another year passes with no federal cannabis law reform, we may have our answer.