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After New York legalizes marijuana, Schumer eyes federal reform

Despite the Biden administration’s hesitancy, marijuana legalization is broadly popular among US voters.

Majority Leader Schumer Holds Press Conference On Senate Business
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a news conference at the Capitol on March 25.
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

In the wake of New York’s decision to legalize marijuana earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) says he’s ready to move on federal marijuana reform.

In an interview with Politico, published Saturday, Schumer said he hopes President Joe Biden’s views on cannabis legislation will evolve, but whether or not that happens, “at some point we’re going to move forward, period.”

The specifics of a reform bill aren’t clear yet — Schumer told Politico that “you’ll have to wait and see” — but he indicated a “comprehensive” measure is on the table.

“What we want to do is first introduce our comprehensive bill, and then start sitting down with people who are not for this in both parties,” Schumer said. “We’d certainly listen to some suggestions if that’ll bring more people on board. That is not to say we’re going to throw overboard things like expungement of records — [things that are] very important to us — just because some people don’t like it.”

Whatever the eventual proposal looks like, Schumer told Politico he is “personally for legalization. And the bill that we’ll be introducing is headed in that direction.”

As of this month, 15 states plus Washington, DC, have legalized recreational marijuana use, and many more have either decriminalized the drug, legalized medical marijuana, or both.

According to Politico, more than 40 percent of the US population lives in those 15 states where marijuana is now legal; however, the drug is still illegal federally.

A map of the US’s marijuana laws.

Biden, for his part, has said he supports decriminalizing the drug and leaving recreational use up to the states, according to The Verge.

As Vox’s German Lopez explained in 2019, there is a difference between decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing it outright.

According to Lopez, “decriminalization generally eliminates jail or prison time for limited possession of marijuana, but some other penalties remain in place, treating a minor marijuana offense more like a minor traffic violation.”

Legalization, though, is more broad and “is generally taken to represent the removal of all government-enforced penalties for possessing and using marijuana. In most, but not all, cases, legalization also paves the way for the legal sales and home-growing of marijuana.”

A new hope for marijuana legislation in the Senate

In December 2020, the Democratic-led House voted 228 to 164 to pass the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would legalize marijuana in the US. Vice President Kamala Harris, then a senator, sponsored the Senate version of the bill, but it never received a vote in the then-Republican-controlled chamber.

However, with Schumer now holding the majority leader’s gavel in the Senate, the prospects for a similar bill are much sunnier. In response to a question from Politico this week, Schumer suggested that there are Republican senators who “support removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.”

Additionally, he said, “the fact that every member will know once we introduce this legislation — not only that it has my support, but that it will come to the floor for a vote — is going to help move things forward in a very strong way.”

Some experts are less sure — John Hudak, the deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, who has also written a book on marijuana, told The Verge he doesn’t believe marijuana legalization has the votes to survive the filibuster in the Senate — but cannabis reform remains broadly popular with voters.

Marijuana legalization is incredibly popular in the US

Public support for marijuana legalization has risen steadily over time, according to Gallup, and reached an all-time high in 2020 with 68 percent of Americans supporting the policy.

The specific bill passed by the House last year is also quite popular: According to Morning Consult, 66 percent of all voters said they supported the MORE Act as of December 2020.

And though Republicans lag independents and Democrats in their support for legalization, the bill has majority support even among GOP voters: 51 percent of Republicans said they either somewhat or strongly supported the legislation, though only five Republican representatives voted for it.

According to Schumer, that widespread support, as well as the success of legalization at the state level, has helped shape his current stance on marijuana legalization.

“The legalization of states worked out remarkably well,” he told Politico. “They were a great success. The parade of horribles never came about, and people got more freedom. And people in those states seem very happy. ... When a state like South Dakota votes by referendum to legalize, you know something is out there.”