Democratic Senators Preparing to File Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA)

Can the current version of the U.S. Congress remove marijuana from the federal list of illegal drugs? The nation may find out this spring as Democrats in the U.S. Senate put the final touches on cannabis reform legislation.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, recently wrote a letter to fellow Senate Democrats on the issue. Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also signed the letter. It asks senators to provide their input into the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) before it is filed later this spring.

The letter seeks “input, advice and guidance” from committee chairs, ranking members “as well as senators who have dealt with the challenges and realities of legalization in their own states.” The letter ends by inviting senators to “join the process of perfecting this legislation.”

CAOA would remove marijuana from the list of illegal drugs (it’s currently at the Schedule I level with drugs such as cocaine and heroin). It also would allow cannabis businesses to have access to financial services and loans.

Making an Argument for Federal Marijuana Legalization

The letter concisely sums up some of the main arguments for passing CAOA. The letter begins with a quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who famously called the U.S. states “laboratories of democracy.” Schumer and the senators write, “When it comes to reforming the nation’s antiquated cannabis laws, he could not have been more right.”

The letter notes that  37 states have legalized medical cannabis and 18 states have legalized both medical and recreational cannabis since 2010.

“This includes a wide cross section of states governed by both Republicans and Democrats,” the letter states. “This is an issue of individual freedom and basic fairness that clearly transcends party lines. However, one major hurdle continues to stand in the way of states’ ability to make their own decisions about cannabis – the continued prohibition of marijuana at the federal level.”

The differences between state and federal law “leads to confusion and uncertainty and raises significant questions around criminal justice reform, economic development and small business growth, and public health and safety, all of which we believe require some type of federal answer.”

That action, they believe, involves passage of the CAOA.

What Are the Odds for Passage of CAOA in 2022?

From certain viewpoints, 2022 is both the best and maybe the last chance for a long time for Congress to remove the federal prohibition against marijuana. But significant challenges remain.

The reason now is a good time to consider CAOA is because Democrats, who tend to favor legalization, have a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and a 50-50 split in the Senate with a potential tie breaking vote in the hands of Vice President Kamala Harris. It’s an advantage they could lose in the fall 2022 elections.

And even now, it’s not clear if all Democrats in the Senate will support legalization. Further, President Joe Biden supports decriminalization, not legalization. It’s impossible to know if he will support the CAOA until all the details of the final bill become known.

Schumer has said he hopes to get the legislation filed by April. In a Tweet, he wrote that, “As Senate Majority Leader, I can set priorities. And comprehensive federal cannabis legalization with justice for the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs—especially communities of color—is a Senate priority. We will move forward.”

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