Even though 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed and enacted marijuana laws that permit recreational use for adults, cannabis possession is still the reason for a large number of drug arrests. In 2018, 40 percent of all drug arrests were for possession of marijuana. And despite roughly equal usage rates, Black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession of cannabis.
It is in this environment that Congress is attempting to write and pass federal legislation to rectify the inequities tied to the War on Drugs. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D. NY) wants to write a bill that tackles social equity issues related to marijuana prohibition. The state of New York is developing a commercial adult-use market for decriminalized cannabis, but there will be impediments to the market as long as federal prohibition is still in place.
Social Equity Versus Banking
However, many supporters of decriminalization in the House and Senate want to start the legislative process with a bill that tackles marijuana banking reform. Owners of marijuana businesses cannot use banks to manage their finances due to federal prohibition. Supporters of banking reform argue that it is politically possible to get a cannabis banking reform bill through Congress relatively quickly. Doing so supports the marijuana industry in an important way – currently, these businesses have to deal in cash and that promotes crime. The House passed a marijuana banking reform bill on February 4th by a vote of 262-168. The bill will be challenging to pass in the closely divided Senate, however, and supporters want to focus their efforts there.
But Schumer and his allies want to develop a bill that deals with the many social equity and justice reforms needed to support ending prohibition at the federal level. Schumer feels that comprehensive reform should precede banking reform in states that have already legalized marijuana use. Lobbyist Shaleen Title of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition (CRCC) indicated that any cannabis reform initiative should be focused on justice and social equity. The organization wants to see progress on strict reform of the War on Drugs and mitigating the impact the war had on communities of color.
Chuck Schumer essentially agrees with the CRCC and others who stress social equity and restitution to communities affected by marijuana prohibition.
Another important to Schumer and some of his allies is the need to keep tobacco and alcohol companies out of the marijuana business. The desire is to create business opportunities for communities that paid a high price for marijuana prohibition. To do so, the “big boys” will need to be restricted in their ability to take over the marijuana growing and marketing business. The CRCC also emphasizes that these smaller community businesses will need access to capital.
The Political Environment for Federal Decriminalization of Cannabis
While cannabis proponents were convinced they could carry the day after the Democrats won the House and Senate in the 2020 election, the reality turned out to be more complex. There is a strong majority of American voters who would like to see federal decriminalization of marijuana. However, legislators are not sufficiently enthusiastic about reform. There must be agreement among several different factions in the House as well as a filibuster breaking majority of Senators in order to pass cannabis decriminalization. The fact is the math does not add up in either body. Ultimately there needs to be a coalition of left-wing Democrats and moderate and libertarian Republicans that are a majority in the House and Senate. But both sides have political requirements that are not supported by the other, but that are important to their respective bases.
Left-wing Democrats insist that any reform legislation must include social equity and racial justice provisions. At the core of their support for federal cannabis decriminalization legislation is the conviction that the War on Drugs was fought at the expense of Black Americans, Latinos, and indigenous populations. Any successful legislation must make a significant effort to rectify this.
On the Republican side is the preference that the issue be treated like a business and marketing problem: government should get out of the way and allow marijuana to be grown, marketed and sold as just another agricultural product, and the business community and free-market principles must prevail.
There are hardcore factions on both sides of the issue, and there will be arguments about inefficient and bloated government versus not doing enough to build social equity. Eventually, there may be a movement to rehabilitate and treat people who become too enthusiastic about smoking legal weed. Congress may find it has to make a choice between leaving everything as it is and maintaining an environment of prohibition. That environment will have increasing numbers of adverse social and legal victims. The alternative would be to make a good faith effort to fix the problems and eliminate the consequences of illegal cannabis.
But every election season we see more and more states that allow recreational marijuana smoking while also collecting considerable amounts of marijuana tax revenue.
As with most things, it will likely all get down to the money. In total, $10.4 billion in cannabis tax revenue has been collected nationwide since the first two states of Colorado and Washington State legalized marijuana. Much of that revenue is going to much-needed services and programs. Some has gone to reinvesting in communities that suffered under prohibition.
Colorado has spent nearly half a billion dollars of marijuana tax revenue on their public school system. California collected $817 million dollars in cannabis tax revenue in the 2020-2021 tax year, or 55 percent more than the year before. The state announced in June that they were awarding $29 million in grants, to be used righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs.
It is clear that, as more states decriminalize and more tax revenue is collected, the arguments against decriminalizing cannabis will become more threadbare.