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Federal Action Alert: Legislation to Decriminalize Marijuana Introduced in the Senate

Drug use crimes on tv-shows might become a fantasy and no more reality if Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s S.3174 Bill passes in Congress. Co-sponsor of the Bill are Bernie Sanders, Tim Kaine and Tammy Duckworth.

WHAT IS THE CURRENT LAW ABOUT MARIJUANA USE?

Currently, 46 states have marijuana legalization laws, including 29 states and the District of Columbia with legalized medical marijuana and 17 states that have allowed access for some medical purposes. In addition to allowing medical marijuana, nine states and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana for recreational use recently.

Contrary to most state laws, federal law prohibits the manufacture, distribution, possession and use of marijuana. The Controlled Substance Act (CSA) classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug. A Schedule I drug is considered as having a high potential for abuse. Medical use of marijuana is not accepted at the federal level, it is prohibited and punishable by fine and/or imprisonment.

This antagonism between state and federal law creates a conflict that law enforcement authorities struggle to deal with.

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING ABOUT THIS ENFORCEMENT UNCERTAINTY?

This issue has been known to government authorities for a few years now and they have acted to abate the conflict. In 2013, the Department of Justice wrote a memorandum allowing for prosecutorial discretion in states where marijuana had been legalized and strong regulatory systems were implemented. This guideline was rescinded in January 2018 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Another action was taken by the Department of the Treasury in 2014 when it allowed financial institutions to provide services to marijuana businesses without being subject to liability. Other bills have been presented to Congress, including the STATES Act that protects states regulations.

WHAT ARE THE CENTRAL PROVISIONS OF THE MARIJUANA FREEDOM AND OPPORTUNITY ACT?

The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act is a cornerstone in the decriminalization of marijuana use. “Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s introduction of federal marijuana decriminalization legislation demonstrated the legitimacy of marijuana reform and is a testament to the success of state-level marijuana reforms all across the country,” said the Drug Policy Alliance’s Queen Adesuyi. “It shows that the debate has shifted from whether we should reform our marijuana laws to how. As we stand on the horizon of ending marijuana prohibition, lawmakers across the country are working to include measures that begin repairing the harms of marijuana criminalization.”

The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act focuses on four aspects:

Decriminalizing Marijuana: it removes marijuana from the list of Scheduled substances under the CSA and therefore decriminalizes it.

Respecting States’ Rights: the federal law enforcement’s authority to prevent marijuana trafficking between states that have legalized marijuana and states that have not is maintained.

Reducing the damage of marijuana criminalization: it allows for grant programs to encourage states and local governments to allow individuals to seal or expunge marijuana possession conviction records.

Protecting the future: various investments will be made for the purposes of highway safety research and ensuring that women and minority entrepreneurs have access to new marijuana industries. The Department of the Treasury’s authority to regulate marijuana advertising will be maintained to make sure marijuana businesses aren’t allowed to target children.

WHAT CHALLENGES IS THE BILL GOING TO FACE NEXT?

On June 28th, the Bill was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and will be analyzed before being presented to Congress. For the bill to pass, it needs to be backed up by Republicans and signed by the President. President Trump show every sign of being in favor of changing federal law since he already conveyed his intent to sign the STATES Act.

In the event the Bill is enacted, it will still face challenges from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions who, we have seen above, is clearly against legalizing marijuana. Two years ago, the DEA denied two petitions to reschedule marijuana. Even though the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act addresses the descheduling legislatively, the DEA will still be able to oppose the Act and delay the intended effects of the Act.

“The time to decriminalize marijuana is now,” said Senator Schumer. “The new Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act is about giving states the freedom to be the laboratories that they should be and giving Americans – especially women and minority business owners as well as those convicted of simple possession of marijuana intended for personal use- the opportunity to succeed in today’s economy. This legislation is simply the right thing to do and I am hopeful that the balanced approach it takes can earn bipartisan support in Congress and across the country.”

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