One Nation, With Cannabis and Justice for All

As more and more Democrats throw their hats in the ring for the 2020 presidential election, one thing is clear: the legalization of cannabis is a popular topic.

On Feb. 28, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who had announced earlier in the month that he would be joining the field of a dozen or so other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, re-introduced the “Marijuana Justice Act” (MJA). Booker first introduced the MJA in 2017.

Booker was joined by several other senators also setting their sights on a presidential run in 2020 – including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), among others – in co-sponsoring the legislation.   

The MJA would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and leverage funds to encourage states to legalize cannabis. “This is the single most far-reaching marijuana bill that’s ever been filed in either chamber of Congress,” Tom Angell, head of the pro-legalization Marijuana Majority, said in a statement. “More than just getting the federal government out of the way so that states can legalize without DEA harassment, this new proposal goes even further by actually punishing states that have bad marijuana laws.”

The MJA goes beyond ending the federal prohibition on marijuana. It is a social justice bill that would also expunge records and reinvest in communities most impacted by the decades-old war on drugs. "Marijuana should be legalized, and we should wipe clean the records of those unjustly jailed for minor marijuana crimes. By outlawing marijuana, the federal government puts communities of color, small businesses, public health and safety at risk." said Warren.

In addition to the social inequities of the war on drugs, under the current federal law, marijuana remains illegal even in states where marijuana has been legalized presenting obstacles in the cannabis industry, including access to banking and restrictions on business tax deductions. 

Booker has publicly criticized former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ effort to revive the war on drugs and during the confirmation hearing for nominee William Barr, procured the commitment that Barr would not go after marijuana companies in states where the substance is legal. At the hearing, Barr stated that he didn’t believe Sessions made the right decision in rescinding the Cole Memorandum.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR.), also a co-sponsor of the MJA, introduced legislation earlier in February that would responsibly legalize, tax and regulate marijuana at the federal level. Known as the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act, it is one of three bills introduced by Wyden to provide a path for responsible federal legislation and regulation of the marijuana industry. The three-bill package is known as the “Path to Marijuana Reform” and also includes the Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act, which would shrink the gap between federal and state marijuana policies, and the Small Business Tax Equity Act, which prevents legal marijuana businesses from getting hit with an unfair tax bill.

The 2020 primaries, in these early stages, already show a change from prior presidential bids where most candidates, including Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton, were more cautions, opposing federal legalization, but supporting individual state legalization. Now, the most prominent Democratic candidates who have announced their campaigns are already showing resolute support for federal legalization.

Much of this shift is explained as Democratic candidates finally match the views of their constituents. In fact, as of last year, even a slight majority of Republicans now seem to favor legalization.  Nonetheless, unless Democrats get a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, or win over Republican legislators, chances are the next president is not going to legalize marijuana nationwide in 2021.

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