Senate Marijuana Legalization Bill Falls Short in Key Areas, Advocates Say

    On July 14, Senators Cory Booker, Chuck Schumer and Ron Wyden announced a draft discussion of a new federal cannabis reform bill called the Cannabis Administration and Opportunities Act (CAOA).

    The most significant highlights include the removal of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and transfer of oversight from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

    This legislation follows the Marijuana Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives last December. (More recently, Amazon has lobbied in favor of that bill, likely eying becoming a cannabis retailer.)

    Booker often refers to the War on Drugs as a “war on people,” linking drug laws and mass incarceration. As anticipated, the draft discussion includes a section dedicated to “Restorative Justice and Opportunity Programs,” which outlines three new grant programs dedicated to those harmed by the drug war. However, similar to problematic measures proposed in the MORE Act, advocates say this plan isn’t nearly enough.

    “It still does not accomplish what we want to ultimately see: The federal government guarantees each person’s right … regardless of your zip code.”

    “Descheduling—explicitly removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely—brings a host of positive changes like ending federal criminalization,” Eric Goepel, co-founder of Veteran Cannabis Coalition and an Iraq War Army veteran, told Filter. “It does not, however, make cannabis legal in all 50 states outside of the laws already on the books in each state. So it still does not accomplish what we want to ultimately see: The federal government guarantees each person’s right for personal access and use of cannabis, including homegrow, regardless of your zip code.”

    Goepel also criticized CAOA’s proposed federal track-and-trace system for cannabis, which “places a huge and unique burden on the legal cannabis industry, does not in any way impact diversion or undermine the health the of illicit market, and creates big costs that get passed down to patients and consumers,” he explained.

    States with legal cannabis markets already impose high tax rates on products. Costly and inefficient tracking systems—designed to appeal to lawmakers rather than consumers—increase the financial burden, pricing out many low-income and otherwise marginalized cannabis consumers.

    The restorative justice section of CAOA also addresses proposals for criminal record expungement and resentencing guidelines for those convicted on cannabis-related charges. Although the plan orders federal judges to expunge records, it’s not automatic; anyone with a non-violent federal cannabis conviction still has to file a motion for expungement in court. The same applies to resentencing, where some incarcerated people would be entitled to sentencing review hearings, but would have to apply for themselves.

    CAOA, Cesal stressed, has little-to-no impact on his case.

    “By saying ‘non-violent marijuana offense’ [in federal reform], it really limits who gets relief,” Craig Cesal, who is currently on supervised release for a cannabis-related conviction, told Filter. “All marijuna offenses are non-violent. The reason they put the ‘violent’ word in is because it gives the district court sentencing judge the discretion to somehow believe [that] either the offender or offense is somehow violent.”

    Cesal spent 19 years behind bars for conspiring to distribute marijuana. In January 2021, President Trump commuted his life imprisonment sentence to time served. CAOA, Cesal stressed, has little-to-no impact on his case, given the state’s classification of cannabis distribution charges as “violent.”

    During our conversation, he described overhearing a 60 Minutes special on legal cannabis grow operations while in his cell. “Think of how that made me feel,” he said. “Now imagine all these people, should this law pass, who will not get relief. Imagine how they will feel sitting and serving up to a life sentence for something that’s no longer a crime.”



    Photograph of Sen. Booker in 2019 by Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Adryan is a journalist and writer covering drugs and policing. Their reporting has appeared in publications including Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, Vice and Complex. They live in New Jersey.

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