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Politics and Government

Leading U.S. Senate Democrats are pushing for federal marijuana legalization. A Colorado-led cannabis banking bill could be collateral.

The marijuana legalization push comes as Colorado's U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat, has been working for years to grant the legal marijuana industry access to banking through the SAFE Banking Act

Automated fans and cultivation lights are pictured operating above cannabis plants at RiNo Supply's cultivation facility near Lafayette on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate’s top Democrat is backing a bill that would strike down a longstanding federal prohibition on marijuana, embracing a proposal that has slim chance of becoming law yet demonstrates growing public support for decriminalizing the drug.

But a Colorado-led effort to give the legal cannabis industry access to banking could be placed in an indefinite holding pattern because of the more sweeping measure, which doesn’t appear to have a path to passage.

Proposals to legalize marijuana are nothing new. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is a sponsor of the effort unveiled Wednesday, underscoring how a once-fringe idea is increasingly mainstream. The measure would erode a central pillar of the decades-long war on drugs, which has disproportionately affected communities of color in the United States.

“I will use my clout as majority leader to make this a priority in the Senate,” said Schumer, of New York, who is the first Senate leader to support such an effort. “It’s not just an idea whose time has come, it’s long overdue.”

The bill would treat marijuana much like alcohol or tobacco, allowing it to be taxed and regulated. States could still outlaw its use. And those under the age of 21 couldn’t purchase it. It would remain illegal to sell significant quantities without proper licensing and authorization, much like bootlegging alcohol. It would also clear the path for additional cannabis medical research.

But besides clearing obstacles to recreational use, advocates say the bill would help the poor and those from communities of color who have disproportionately been arrested, charged and jailed for marijuana crimes.

The bill would expunge federal nonviolent convictions and allow for records of them to be sealed. Those currently serving nonviolent marijuana-related sentences could also seek a review hearing and receive an expungement.

Read more business stories from The Colorado Sun.

“We have our precious resources being used to lock up … Black and brown people for doing things that presidents, Congress people and senators have done,” said Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is also a cosponsor of the bill, along with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.

A similar bill has passed the House. But the measure faces a virtually nonexistent path in a narrowly divided Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation.

Schumer acknowledged that not all Democrats support the bill. That includes President Joe Biden, who has said he supports decriminalizing marijuana but believes the federal prohibition should remain.

“I’ve spoken in the past about the president’s views on marijuana. Nothing has changed and there’s no new endorsements of legislation today,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

Republicans and influential law enforcement groups are certain to oppose it, as well.

“I don’t understand how Republicans who say they are for ‘states rights’ won’t support what my colleagues are talking about,” said Wyden. ”What this bill does is we decriminalize at the federal level, but we don’t require states to legalize.”

The marijuana legalization push comes as Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat, has been working for years to grant the legal marijuana industry access to banking through the SAFE Banking Act. Legal cannabis businesses have not been able to access full banking services because banks are federally regulated and marijuana remains federally illegal.

MORE: Congress is weighing whether to give marijuana businesses access to banks. In Colorado, that’s already happening.

Booker said he would not support Perlmutter’s effort moving forward while the broader legalization legislation is on the table.

“I don’t know about other members of the Senate, but I will lay myself down to stop an easy banking bill that’s going to allow all these corporations to make a lot more money off of this as opposed to focusing on the restorative justice aspect,” he said at a news conference.

Perlmutter said in a written statement that he disagrees with that approach.

“I support comprehensive cannabis reform legislation and believe it is important to ensure true social and economic justice is achieved following the War on Drugs. However, there is a serious public safety threat that exists in our communities which we cannot wait to address,” Perlmutter said. “Cannabis-related businesses – including small and minority-owned businesses – and their employees continue to be forced to operate as high-volume cash businesses that are being targeted by violent criminals and putting our communities and constituents at risk.”

Perlmutter added: ” The SAFE Banking Act is not about making corporations richer – it’s about protecting employees, patients, and customers of small businesses.”

The National Cannabis Industry Association also blasted Booker’s remarks.

“We absolutely share Sen. Booker’s desire to enact comprehensive reform as soon as possible, but we also recognize – as do the sponsors of this legislation – that the status quo disproportionately hurts marginalized communities and small businesses, and that getting the bipartisan support necessary for passage in the current term is far from certain,” Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a written statement. “Closing the door on broadly supported incremental reforms like the SAFE Banking Act while the Senate seeks compromise on farther-reaching bills hurts the possibilities for consensus and ignores the very real needs of small business operators who have repeatedly said that access to banking services and traditional lending is an existential issue.”

Nearly $11 billion of recreational marijuana has been sold in Colorado since sales began in 2014, pumping more than $1.8 billion in tax revenue into the state’s coffers.

Schumer and the other sponsors of the bill say their proposal is a “discussion draft” that’s intended to get the conversation started.

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Though 18 states have legalized recreational use and 37 allow for some sort of medical marijuana, the remaining federal prohibition has created headaches for the industry in states where it is legal, making it hard for businesses to get banking services and loans.

Those in the marijuana industry called Schumer’s support a significant advance.

“It is a big ask and I’m a realist,” said Joe Caltabiano, CEO of Choice Consolidation Corp. and the cofounder of Cresco Labs. “It will take a lot to get this bill through Congress.”

Maritza Perez, of the Drug Policy Alliance, said Congress is finally catching up with where the general public has long been. Meanwhile, those who are convicted of marijuana-related offenses face life-altering consequences, making it hard to get a job or receive public benefits.

Earlier this month, American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was left off the U.S. team’s Olympic roster following a positive test for marijuana, costing her a chance at running on the relay team in Tokyo, in addition to her spot in the 100-meter individual race.

“Today is a historic day in the sense that we have the Senate majority leader introducing a bill to regulate and legalize marijuana. That’s huge,” said Perez, who is a director in the office of national affairs for the organization. “For the public, marijuana has become culturally acceptable. But people forget that more than a half-million people are arrested for marijuana possession each year.”


Brian Slodysko of The Associated Press contributed to this report. Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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