Legal Marijuana Advocates are One Step Closer to Federal Reform

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Legal marijuana is nearing federal reform in the U.S., with state-led initiatives and proposed bills pointing to a future of decriminalization.

The long and winding road towards federal marijuana reform in the United States has been fraught with setbacks, delays, and controversies. However, recent events indicate that legal marijuana advocates are one step closer to their goal, making this an opportune time to reflect on the journey and contemplate what lies ahead.

A Brief History of Marijuana Prohibition

To understand the significance of these advancements, one must appreciate the historical context. Marijuana was criminalized in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Various reasons fueled its prohibition, from unfounded health concerns to societal prejudices. Over the decades, marijuana’s legal status has not only resulted in millions of arrests but has also impacted minority communities disproportionately.

However, as research has expanded, many of these myths surrounding marijuana have been debunked. Medical studies have demonstrated its potential therapeutic benefits, leading states to reconsider their positions.

State-led Initiatives: Pioneering Legalization

Starting with California in 1996, individual states began to push back against federal prohibition by legalizing medical marijuana. As of my last training cut-off in September 2021, 36 states, along with Washington, D.C., had legalized marijuana for medical use, and 18 of those states, including D.C., had legalized it for recreational use as well.

These state-led initiatives provided the necessary impetus for national reform. They demonstrated that regulated marijuana markets could work, offering economic benefits, reducing drug-related crime, and generating substantial tax revenues.

The Push for Federal Reform

Despite the progressive state-level changes, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under federal law. This classification means it’s deemed to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” – a characterization many experts dispute.

Over the past few years, federal legislators have proposed several bills aiming to decriminalize or legalize marijuana at the national level. Some have gained more traction than others, but the momentum is undeniable. Advocates hope that with a majority of Americans now in favor of legalization, according to several polls, federal laws will soon catch up with the changing societal views.

Recent Advancements: A Ray of Hope

Several recent events suggest that legal marijuana advocates are nearing their goal. The first significant shift was the House of Representatives passing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act in 2020, which aimed to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and address some of the racial disparities associated with marijuana arrests.

Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, along with Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden, introduced a draft proposal in 2021 called the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act. This draft legislation goes beyond the MORE Act, as it seeks not only to deschedule marijuana but also to regulate and tax it.

The conversation on marijuana reform has also expanded beyond partisan lines. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers have supported measures like the SAFE Banking Act, which would protect banks that serve marijuana-related businesses in states where it’s legal.

The Road Ahead

While these advancements are commendable, there’s still a long way to go. Federal legislation needs to tackle numerous complex issues, such as:

  1. Regulation: Setting up a federal framework for marijuana sales and distribution that respects state rights and choices.
  2. Taxation: Determining how marijuana will be taxed at the federal level and how those revenues will be used.
  3. Criminal Justice: Addressing the past harms of marijuana prohibition, including expunging past convictions and ensuring those most harmed by past policies benefit from the new industry.
  4. Research: Providing clear pathways for expanded research into marijuana’s medical potential and long-term effects.
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