Democrats Finally Catch Up With America, Move to Decriminalize Weed

But the bill faces long odds in the Senate—and President Joe Biden isn’t on board.
July 14, 2021, 4:37pm
Senator Chuck Schumer signs a bong during an interview with VICE News Tonight.
Senator Chuck Schumer signs a bong during an interview with VICE News Tonight. (Jesse Seidman for VICE News)

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Senate Democrats unveiled sweeping legislation to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level on Wednesday—a move that would put the U.S. government in line with the views of a large majority of Americans and end the piecemeal, confused approach the federal government has taken toward weed for the past decade.

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The bill would decriminalize recreational marijuana use at the federal level, allowing states to officially make their own rules on weed and ending the wink-and-a-nod policy where the feds basically let states do what they want without actually declaring it legal. 

The bill would remove cannabis as a Schedule I drug from the Controlled Substance Act, reclassifying it so it’s no longer viewed by the government as a highly addictive substance with no medical benefits. It would expunge the federal records of people who’ve been arrested for nonviolent marijuana-related charges, and allow states to tax and regulate weed. And it proposes to tax weed  and reinvest that money in Black, Hispanic, and other communities who’ve been most harmed by the war on drugs and the fallout of disproportionately high incarceration rates for drug use.

The bill was coauthored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, all Democrats.

“This is a grievous reality. Lives are being destroyed every single day,” Booker said as he introduced the bill Wednesday afternoon. “We have our precious resources being used to lock up majority Black and brown people for doing things  that presidents, congresspeople and senators have done. This bill is urgent. This bill is long past due.”

While 18 states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized weed usage, current federal policy is a muddled mess. The Department of Justice hasn’t enforced cases against marijuana businesses that follow state law for years, and Congress prohibited the DOJ from spending money to target states who legalized marijuana in 2015. But the Internal Revenue Service continues to enforce its own rules. And because marijuana is still treated as a Schedule I drug, growers and dealers can’t use the regular banking system, creating major practical hurdles to the industry.

Americans’ views on cannabis legalization have shifted fast and hard over the past two decades—but it’s been clear for a while that most Americans support cannabis legalization. 

Recent polling shows that 60% of Americans say marijuana should be legal for both recreational and medical use—31% say it should be legal for medical use only, while just 8% think it should be completely illegal, the current federal policy.

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Two-thirds of Americans say that marijuana should be legal when presented with an either-or option. That’s a complete reversal from two decades ago, when nearly two-thirds of Americans said it should remain illegal, but it’s now been a full decade since polls began to show majority support for marijuana legalization.

Schumer pointed to that shift in views as he discussed the bill Wednesday morning on the Senate floor.

“Over the past decade, Americans’ attitudes toward marijuana have undergone a dramatic transformation,” he said.

The House passed nearly identical legislation in December.

And many conservatives have shifted on this issue too. Polls show narrow majorities of Republicans support marijuana legalization. And cannabis advocates recently got a surprise when conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas questioned whether federal ban on marijuana use is constitutional.

​​"A prohibition on intrastate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the federal government's piecemeal approach," he wrote in late June as the court declined to hear a pot regulation case.

But public opinion doesn’t always matter all that much in the Senate—otherwise, gun control legislation would have passed years ago.  

President Biden also hasn’t endorsed the legislation, and he’s been very reluctant to evolve on his old anti-pot views.

And even with Schumer’s support behind it, the bill is unlikely to go anywhere. No Republicans have signed on to the legislation, and a handful of moderate Democratic senators aren’t on board.