More than one year after unveiling the draft legislation, leading Democratic Senate lawmakers finally introduced a bill that would federally legalize cannabis and promote social equity in a legal marijuana industry.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) first announced their plan to end federal cannabis prohibition at the start of 2021. The result of this was the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA).

Marijuana reform advocates and industry stakeholders had to wait longer than was anticipated as the senators sought to build support and gather input for the draft legislation, but it has now been officially filed.

After receiving nearly 2,000 comments as part of a feedback process, the CAOA swelled from 163 pages to 296. Schumer indicated, however, that it’s possible the comprehensive cannabis reform package will be revised down into a form that’s more likely to pass Congress.

Such changes or omissions could include, for example, sections on marijuana industry workers’ rights, expungements, a federal standard for impaired driving, and federal penalties for possessing large amounts of marijuana without a license or permit.

“For far too long, the federal prohibition on cannabis and the War on Drugs has been a war on people, and particularly people of color,” Schumer said in a press release. He added that the CAOA “will be a catalyst for change by removing cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, protecting public health and safety, and expunging the criminal records of those with low-level cannabis offenses, providing millions with a new lease on life.”

Here are the CAOA’s main provisions in brief:

  • The attorney general would ensure marijuana and tetrahydrocannabinol are removed the Controlled Substances Act within 180 days.
  • Small to mid-sized marijuana cultivators would initially face a 5 percent federal excise tax. This would raise to 12.5 percent after five years.
  • Large marijuana cultivators would face an excise tax of 10 percent, rising to a maximum of 25 percent.
  • Adults 21 and older would be allowed to purchase and possess marijuana products.
  • Those with low-level federal marijuana convictions would have their records expunged. Those currently incarcerated with such convictions could petition the courts for early release.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and trade Bureau (TTB), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) would work together to establish a regulatory framework for the cannabis industry.
  • The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) would update its guidance to confirm to financial institutions that they can legally service marijuana businesses.
  • States would be able to prohibit cannabis production and sales, but would not be allowed to prevent marijuana products from being transported through their jurisdiction.
  • Two social equity grants programs would be created to provide funding to states that would be used to increase minority and low-income participation in the cannabis industry.
  • Individuals would not be denied federal benefits on the basis of cannabis use, possession or a marijuana-related conviction.
  • Marijuana testing for federal employees would be prohibited, except for law enforcement personnel and national security agents.

By and large, marijuana reform advocates are pleased at the introduction of such a comprehensive federal cannabis reform bill.

“The official introduction of this bill to finally end the policy nightmare of federal marijuana prohibition is the culmination of unprecedented leadership in the Senate and engagement with stakeholders across the political spectrum,” said NORML political director Morgan Fox. “We look forward to working with lawmakers to move this legislation toward passage and eagerly anticipate engaging in substantive conversations on all aspects of federal marijuana law with Senate members.”

How the CAOA will fare in both chambers is another matter though. Reaching the vote-threshold required to advance through the Senate will be difficult, given the bill’s far-reaching social equity and criminal justice provisions on top of entrenched opposition to marijuana legalization itself. It’s not any more certain to pass the House either. The Democrats hold a slim majority and several members have already indicated they are opposed to the CAOA.

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