One step closer to legal cannabis?
Attitudes toward marijuana in the United States have considerably shifted. The years have proven to be kinder and gentler to this much-maligned plant. Just half a century ago, Americans were on the verge of a cultural revolution. Love and war had collided, and Woodstock had taken the American imagination by storm.
Despite this, only a mere 12% of Americans were in favor of legalizing cannabis. Fast forward to an October 2018 Gallup Poll, and 62% of Americans think the herb should be made legal, and this figure keeps rising.
In the past, opposition against marijuana has proven to be politically expedient. It was the go-to for speeches and rallies, and the public often responded with substantial support.
However, as activists have pushed for reform, the general public has become more informed about the benefits of marijuana. This has led to a change in the political climate.
Politicians are now singing a different tune. In light of rising incarceration rates of non-violent offenders (most of whom are of color) with marijuana charges, the stakes are high. Those who would like to serve our public interests have to address the legalization of marijuana. It is no longer an option, and many of our political figures must take the time to discuss how marijuana could benefit our lives and our health.
There has been movement on this front. In fact, some politicians have been championing new laws and legislation that makes marijuana easier to access for a variety of individuals. One of these pieces of legislation includes the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act, also known as S. 420 or the 420 bill.
What Would S. 420 Do for Marijuana?
The purpose of the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act is for the federal government to actively take a role in the regulation and sale of marijuana. This bill was first introduced to the Senate on February 2019 by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. It was co-sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
By regulating, decriminalizing, and taxing cannabis, the government would ultimately do away with the penalties associated with marijuana. Marijuana would then be rescheduled and, like other substances such as alcohol and tobacco, be subject to the same taxes at the same rate.
Although the official name of the bill is the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act, it was later introduced as a ‘companion’ measure to the House Resolution (HR) 420. Resolution (HR) 420 was introduced by Earl Blumenauer of Oregon in January 2019. HR 420 is a measure that exists alongside two other pieces of the proposed legislation: The Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act (S.421) and The Small Business Tax Equity Act (S.422).
Combined, all three pieces of legislation would accomplish several goals. These would include creating a taxation stream that is much more similar to that of other businesses sanctioned by federal law. Currently, companies selling marijuana-based products are not eligible for certain tax credits.
More on S. 420 and S. 422
Under the S.422, or The Small Business Tax Equity Act, these credits would be available. Also, Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act would remove the barriers for marijuana-based businesses that would allow many other companies to flourish, including advertisements and media.
Proponents can now easily imagine living in a time where marijuana would be as accessible as alcohol. However, this newest legislation comes with some caveats. Unlike alcohol, there would be legal limits on the quantity you can purchase at once. Despite this, those in favor of legalization are hopeful.
Politicians such as Congressman Earl Blumenauer are finally admitting that marijuana is a serious issue for many people, including those suffering from chronic pain and disabling conditions. He states that the federal cannabis laws are out of touch with the current climate. He went on to tweet in early 2019 that it was time to “end this senseless prohibition.”
If HR 420 is passed, it would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and hand over weed regulation to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Removing marijuana from Schedule I status would remove banking regulations and allow marijuana companies to function like ‘traditional’ businesses.
As for S. 420, Senator Ron Wyden has given his support and said that the bill would “responsibly legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana at the federal level.” He echoed Blumenauer’s sentiments by saying that federal prohibition of cannabis is wrong and has wasted too many lives through incarceration.
How S.420 Could Affect the Incarcerated
According to the ACLU, 52% of drug arrests were the result of the possession of marijuana in small amounts. Many of those arrested were African Americans, although both African Americans and Whites use and carry pot at the same rates.
Overturning current legislation could have a significant impact on this disparity. For example, Illinois will soon legalize the use and sale of recreational marijuana. This will have a profound effect on the incarcerated, many of whom are serving time on marijuana charges.
Legislators are planning a mass overhaul of the Illinois justice system following this bill.
This overhaul will include the discharge of thousands of sentences for those in Illinois prisons for the possession or sale of 30 grams marijuana or less.
S.420 could mark the beginning of a long-overdue reexamination of sentences for offenders. It can begin with formal support from many politicians in our government, including those such as Senator Wyden and Congressman Blumenauer. The current administration is the most “pro-cannabis Congress in American history,” according to Blumenauer, and essential pieces of legislation are continually being introduced.
What Will Happen Next?
There has been some pushback and opposition to the proposals. The 115th U.S. Congress met from 3 January 2017 to 3 January 2019. During that time, more than 60 pieces of marijuana-related legislation were introduced. Dozens more will be presented during the 116th Congress.
Perhaps more importantly, six different proposals in Congress would finally end marijuana prohibition in the U.S. They are different pieces of legislation. While some merely allow legal states to continue without concern over federal law, others want to go all the way, regulating and legalizing the drug entirely.
Bills are relatively simple to introduce into Congress. The problem is garnering enough support first to get a committee’s review, and then to go to a full vote. Once a bill has gotten to this point, there need to be enough votes for the bill to be made into law. Although politicians like Blumenauer and Rohrabacher support marijuana reform, many do not.
The number of marijuana bills in play can also cause further confusion and may be part of a broader strategy. It is possible to alter these bills along the way and strike down significant portions of their content. This may happen if a lawmaker knows he/she is close to getting enough votes.
Aside from the HR 420 and S. 420 legislation, important proposals include the STATES Act and the Sensible Enforcement of Cannabis Act (SECA). Then we have the CARERS Act and the Next Step Act. Some of these bills seek state control while others are looking to reschedule marijuana.
Regarding the question “What happens next?”, the answer remains unclear. As long as there is opposition to marijuana legalization in the Senate, it is unlikely that we will see the end of federal prohibition.
Ending Marijuana Prohibition
Politicians speak a relevant truth when they assert that marijuana prohibition has ruined many lives. African-Americans have suffered to a disproportionate degree under current marijuana laws and legislation. Even the latest pro-marijuana bills introduced to Congress will continue to hurt African-Americans and other people of color who are cannabis users.
For example, the 420 set of bills would bar people with previous marijuana-related convictions from being eligible for cannabis business licenses, or else they may have to wait five years.
The S. 421 bill only allows for the limited expungement of criminal marijuana records.
Meanwhile, Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries announced the reintroduction of the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act in May 2019. It was introduced in the 115th Congress but stalled. It involves taking a significant step towards making the landscape fairer by expunging low-level marijuana convictions and provide funding for cannabis enterprises owned by women and ethnic minorities.
What Can Be Done?
Ultimately, there is no way of knowing which bill will make it the furthest, or even if any of them will make it into law. While lawmakers twiddle their collective thumbs, it is up to pro-marijuana voters to make themselves heard.
Get in touch with your legislator and let them know that you support that bill. Even if the law doesn’t make it through, the lawmaker will understand that voters in his/her area are pro-cannabis. It could be years before any of these bills even make it to a meaningful vote. It could be a bill that hasn’t been introduced yet that makes all the difference. Until then, all that can be done is to continue to advocate for marijuana reform.