Lawmakers are pessimistic about legalization

In recent weeks, co-sponsors of a highly publicized cannabis legalization bill have admitted that it is unlikely to pass. The outlook for other avenues of cannabis reform also appear bleak as lawmakers look to attach unrelated and controversial provisions to the SAFE Banking bill that could curb its popularity on both sides of the aisle.

Legalization Won’t Pass

The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) was introduced in late July after many months of heated discussion. The bill would deschedule cannabis, removing it from the federal list of controlled substances, and expunge the records of minor federal cannabis offenders. The bill would give regulatory authority over the drug to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration and would also establish standards for safe driving in regard to cannabis consumption, among many other reforms. Notably, the bill would allow states to develop their own cannabis laws without much industry regulation from federal agencies.

The high profile bill has been a central point of discussion in cannabis circles over the last year with many advocates claiming that it was a viable avenue for federal legalization. But in recent weeks, the bill’s sponsors have implied that they aren’t expecting it to pass this year.

“A 50-50 majority in the Senate will make passing our bill a difficult feat,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) told reporters, “but I hope we can at minimum pass some key reforms this Congress. This is a winning issue that is overwhelmingly backed by the American people, especially young voters, who understand how ridiculous and unfair it is for folks to be locked away for something that most states have legalized and almost everyone thinks should be legal.”

“Compromise Guy”

Following the bill’s introduction, co-sponsor Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) suddenly became very vocal about supporting the competing SAFE Banking Act, even though he previously said he would “lay myself down” to stop it from becoming law.

“I’m a compromise guy,” said Booker in an interview on NJ Spotlight. “I’m open to compromises that are going to achieve my goals of safety, of investment opportunities that are equal for business communities and finally, to make sure we do something for all these people right now who have marijuana possession charges that deserve some relief from the impact that it’s having on their economic and family wellbeing.”

When asked if he would now support the passage of SAFE Banking ahead of the CAOA, Booker acquiesced. “It’s very important. I’m a supporter of that. I just want it to be balanced with us having some restorative justice as well.” This change of tack could be the result of political reality setting in as midterms draw near and success for the CAOA seems less likely.

Schumer and Company Tried to Block SAFE Banking

Booker’s flip was unexpected as the three top co-sponsors of the CAOA—Wyden, Booker and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DY-NY)—have repeatedly stated that they would block SAFE Banking from passing on the grounds that it would make stakeholders with economic interests in cannabis less inclined to push for expansive reform.

The SAFE Banking Act would allow banks and financial institutions to safely do business with cannabis companies without fearing federal prosecution. Current law forbids banks from working with criminal organizations, and due to cannabis prohibition, state-legal pot companies are included in that category.

Schumer, Booker and Wyden’s ultimatum put cannabis advocates at odds over whether to support full legalization or what was seen as incremental reform represented by SAFE Banking. But SAFE Banking has been accepted by both Republicans and Democrats, a feat that has seemed impossible for the CAOA since it was proposed.

Now that ultimatum has evolved into the inclusion of reforms taken from the CAOA and attached to the SAFE Banking Act in a proposed hybrid bill known as “SAFE Banking Plus.” The new bill would include cannabis banking reforms along with cannabis record expungements and other restorative justice reforms.

“I’m actually gaining enthusiasm,” Booker said in an interview with PIX 11. “And now more Republicans are stepping up to help us perhaps land a compromise.” But it’s unclear how altering a bill approved by Republicans to include reforms that have been rejected by the GOP would allow it to retain its bipartisan support.

Republicans are in a good position to take one or both houses of Congress during the midterms, and that means time is running out before the traditionally anti-pot GOP is able to keep any major cannabis reforms from occurring.

The Biden Problem

The Biden administration appears to pose as much of a threat to cannabis reform as the Republicans in coming years. Despite campaign promises, President Joe Biden has failed to issue executive orders to deschedule cannabis or expunge the records of federal marijuana prisoners—which he has the power to do at any time. The president has also decided to avoid commenting on the CAOA or the SAFE Banking Act.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman called on the president to decriminalize marijuana ahead of Biden’s visit to Pittsburgh on Labor Day. “The president needs to use his executive authority to begin descheduling marijuana,” Fetterman said.

When asked to respond, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration had nothing to announce regarding the topic. Without the support of the White House, cannabis reform legislation will probably not see the light of day for years if the Republicans come into Congressional power.

In July the president’s daughter-in-law was spotted by reporters as she left a California adult-use marijuana dispensary accompanied by a secret service agent and carrying a small, unidentified purchase. The president did not comment on the story.