New legislation, the Marijuana Justice Act, would legalize marijuana on a federal level — and even provide financial incentives for states to legalize it too. Could this be the moment when federal policy finally catches up to public opinion, which now shows a majority of Americans in support of legalization?
Eight states have now legalized marijuana for recreational purposes since Colorado became the first in 2012. Polls show the American public supports legalization at all time highs of 57 percent support and rising, a sharp reversal from as recently as a few years ago.
Yet marijuana has been banned under federal law since 1937, and classified as a Schedule I substance since 1971. Schedule I is the Drug Enforcement Agency’s category for the most dangerous and stringently-banned drugs, including heroin and ranked higher than cocaine.
State legalization has only been allowed to proceed recently, despite the ostensible federal ban, because of an Obama-era Department of Justice decision not to use their federal powers to prosecute in states where marijuana was legal. However, there’s no guarantee that will continue under President Trump, whose Attorney General and head of the Department of Justice Jeff Sessions is vocally anti-marijuana.
What the bill does
The Marijuana Justice Act, introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), would end the federal prohibition on marijuana once and for all, by removing the drug from the DEA’s list of controlled substances entirely.
It would also apply retroactively, allowing for judicial review of anybody serving a prison sentence for drug possession. (Although virtually nobody in America goes to jail just for marijuana possession or use, the charge is often used to add time to a jail sentence primarily handed down for conviction of another drug-related crime such as selling or trafficking.)
Lastly, the bill would use federal expenditures to incentive states to legalize the drug “if those laws were shown to have a disproportionate effect on low-income individuals and/or people of color.” As Vox points out, that designation applies to almost every state. Therefore, this bill would effectively authorize federal expenditures to support nationwide legalization at the state level as well.
It was introduced as Senate bill number S. 1689. (Unfortunately, S. 420 was already taken.)
What supporters say
Supporters argue the drug war has cost far too much money, primarily hurt those demographics who are already hurting the most, and are a misuse of law enforcement resources.
“Our country’s drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed,” Sen. Booker said in a press release. “They don’t make our communities any safer — instead they divert critical resources from fighting violent crimes, tear families apart, unfairly impact low-income communities and communities of color, and waste billions in taxpayer dollars each year.
“This is the single most far-reaching marijuana bill that’s ever been filed in either chamber of Congress,” Tom Angell, chairman and founder of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, said in a statement.
What opponents say
Opponents say that marijuana is a more harmful drug than many believe, and that existing federal law should trump state law on this matter.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the country’s top law enforcement official, has said “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He also appears likely to start cracking down harder on legal marijuana in states, calling the drug “dangerous” and noting such factors as an increased risk of car crashes for drivers under the influence.
Even former President Obama, who many viewed as more supportive of marijuana reform at least rhetorically, considered but ultimately refused to downgrade marijuana from Schedule I in August 2016.
Odds of passage
Introduced on August 1, the bill Currently has no Senate cosponsors yet, as of this writing — not even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who introduced a similar bill in 2015. The Marijuana Justice Act has not yet received a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.