Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) says he wants to introduce his long-awaited cannabis legalization bill in April, but is it likely that it will see any success?
At a press conference in New York City, Schumer laid out a soft timeline for introducing the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). “In the coming weeks, we’re ramping up our outreach, and we expect to introduce final legislation. Our goal is to do it in April,” Schumer said, according to Marijuana Moment. “Then we begin the nationwide push, spearheaded by New York, to get the federal law done. As majority leader, I can set priorities. This is a priority for me.”
This is the first time that Schumer has set a date for the bill. Since announcing that he would be working on it alongside Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) in early 2021, the senate majority leader has repeatedly avoided providing a timeline. Schumer released a draft of the bill in July but has not reported any progress since then beyond threatening to block a congressional bill that would allow banks to work with cannabis companies if his legalization bill wasn’t advanced.
Now Schumer says he’s asking lawmakers to help him write up a final draft of the bill. “Right now, we’re taking those comments and reaching out to Democratic and Republican senators,” Schumer said. “We have some Republican support.”
And Republican support for the bill is an absolute necessity. Cannabis financial consultants Viridian Capital Advisors’ Jon DeCourcey is pessimistic about the likelihood that Schumer will see any success this year. “We appreciate any progress but have been here before and expect the banking provision to again stall in the Senate and believe Mr. Schumer’s proposal will fall flat either by not offering sufficient social change to rally progressive Democrats or too much to garner support from the needed ten Republicans to cross the aisle and ensure passage,” he wrote in Seeking Alpha.
Schumer and his colleagues appear to be more optimistic. In a letter written to the Senate by the Senate majority leader, Booker and Wyden seem ready to move forward. “Following the release of the CAOA discussion draft, we received over 1,800 comments from a broad array of stakeholders, many with substantive and detailed policy recommendations. In the weeks ahead, we will continue the work of incorporating these comments as we aim to introduce legislation soon that is as comprehensive and reflective of as many relevant views and voices as possible.”
The CAOA has more hurdles to clear than the need for support from the GOP. In October, Schumer, Booker and Wyden told reporters that they planned to stall progress on the SAFE Banking bill until the legalization bill got a fair shake.
The senators said approving protections for banks would relieve political pressure to reform cannabis laws and would push back legalization progress. During an interview on the Psychoactive podcast, Schumer said,“If we let this bill out, it will make it much harder and take longer to pass comprehensive reform.”
“I don’t know about other members of the Senate,” said Booker during a press conference, “but 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, as opposed to focusing on the restorative justice aspect.”
The SAFE Banking ACT—many versions of which have stalled in Congress over the last few years—only protects financial institutions that choose to work with cannabis companies from federal prosecution. Cannabis producers and retailers in states that have legalized the drug are often forced to function as cash-only operations because banks aren’t willing to take the risk of working with them. This leads to a number of problems, including the necessity to pay employees in cash and transport large sums of money through the use of armored vehicle services. Under these conditions, cannabis companies risk becoming the targets of thieves as well as federal enforcers.
While these issues that are addressed by the bill are among the most pressing in the age of prohibition, it does not deal with personal use at all and would not protect consumers or those already imprisoned for marijuana crimes.
Earlier this month the SAFE Banking Act’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), told reporters that he has been in discussions with Schumer and his colleagues about amending the bills to include social equity provisions. Schumer has reportedly said that he would be willing to advance the banking bill this year if such provisions were included.
But the SAFE Banking bill’s bipartisan support might waver if too much of the language is altered, warned Perlmutter. Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-NC), “is not supporting the bill, but he hasn’t been a roadblock to us continuing to offer it as an amendment.” This could change if McHenry feels threatened by further changes in the bill. In 2019, the Republican blocked the bill from advancing, sending a letter to the chairwoman of the Committee on Financial Services asking to delay its consideration. McHenry has been an active opponent of cannabis law reform and has voted against every measure that has been presented to him.
But by far the biggest hurdle for Schumer to overcome will be the midterms. Extended COVID-19 restrictions, low approval ratings for the president, and the worst level of inflation reported since the ’80s bode poorly for Democrats in the fall midterms. It seems increasingly unlikely that they will maintain their majority in the House. Without that majority, the chances of seeing cannabis law reform in the next year are almost nil.
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