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Federal marijuana laws are woefully outdated. Current federal law suppresses cannabis business activity and disproportionately affects people of color. Marijuana law reform is going at a snail’s pace, but recent action in Congress suggests that promising outcomes may be coming sooner rather than later. Here is the latest on marijuana reform.

Marijuana Reform Policy Now

Outdated federal cannabis laws are more than an inconvenience for cannabis companies and consumers. The war on drugs has clearly failed and goes against what a majority of Americans believe. These rules also keep fueling a significant amount of criminal activity in the legal cannabis industry.

Cannabis primarily deals in cash transactions, putting owners, employees, and customers in danger. Federal prohibition discourages financial institutions from working with cannabis businesses. Because of this, companies must deal with only cash with very few credit card processing and banking options.

Passing marijuana reform that allows banks to work with cannabis companies would significantly reduce the risk of criminal activity and maintain safe communities by limiting the amount of cash that is handled, stored, and transported by companies. 

On top of preventing crime, federal cannabis reform would promote cannabis research that could uncover more of the therapeutic potential of medical cannabis. Legal marijuana would remove the obstacles currently faced by researchers who try to study the drug.

Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act

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Representative Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) has attempted to pass cannabis policy reform throughout most of his career, including the SAFE Banking Act. The bill would allow legal cannabis businesses to work with the banking system, enable the IRS to collect cannabis taxes better, and reduce the crime caused by the cash-only business model.

Throughout its history, the SAFE Banking Act has been passed six times in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support. In fact, the latest version was passed, with 106 Republicans supporting the bill. However, the struggle lies in making it past the Senate. Senate lawmakers are not willing to move forward with incremental reform bills and are in favor of more comprehensive reform.

Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act

On March 24, 2022, the Senate unanimously approved a bill that would promote research on cannabis. The bill titled Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act is sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA). A similar version of the bill was unanimously passed in the Senate in 2020 and reintroduced in February 2021. 

Under the bill, researchers would have an easier time applying to study the plant, which would help inspire the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create marijuana-derived medicines. It would also explicitly allow doctors to speak freely about the benefits and risks of medical cannabis use with patients. 

The measure would instruct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create a report on the health benefits of cannabis and another report on the challenges facing cannabis research and the ways to overcome them.

In a press release, Senator Dianne Feinstein said, “current rules and regulations make it hard for researchers to study how marijuana and marijuana-derived medications can best be used to treat various conditions.” “This important legislation will cut the red tape around the research process, helping get FDA approved, marijuana-derived medications safely to patients,” she continued.

Marijuana, Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act

On March 24, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives scheduled a legalization vote on a bill that would federally legalize cannabis. The House will consider the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). A previous version of the bill made it through the chamber the last session but was stalled in a Republican-controlled senate.

Under this bill, cannabis would be removed from the list of federally controlled substances, and provisions would promote social equity in cannabis. The bill would also expunge past convictions and allocate the federal tax money from cannabis to certain communities and programs.

Most importantly, it would set up a framework for resentencing people in jail for cannabis offenses, prevent immigrants from getting denied citizenship due to marijuana, and stop federal agencies from withholding public benefits to individuals due to marijuana.

House members plan to take up the bill on Monday, March 28, 2022, by the Rules Committee before it's sent to the House floor for consideration. 

In December 2020, the MORE Act passed a House floor vote with only five Republicans in support, one of which recently died. Representative Don Young (R-AK) was a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act (CAOA)

While many lawmakers are moving forward with modest cannabis reform bills, many are still waiting for a Senate legalization proposal being brought forward by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Schumer has previously stated that he plans to file the comprehensive reform bill in April 2022. 

The CAOA plans to accomplish the following:

  • Decriminalize cannabis
  • Federally regulate cannabis
  • Order federal research into cannabis health benefits and risks
  • Allow interstate cannabis commerce
  • Protect immigrants from being denied federal benefits due to cannabis
  • Impose a federal excise tax on cannabis product sales
  • Create Opportunity Trust Fund Programs to reinvest in communities impacted by the war on drugs

Marijuana Reform Consideration From the Biden Administration

Throughout his campaign, President Biden declared his support for the decriminalization of cannabis. Cannabis decriminalization would prevent people from getting jailed for simple cannabis possession under federal law and expunge prior possession convictions. 

Under federal law, a person can get be incarcerated for one year for the first offense of marijuana possession and 2 to 3 years for subsequent convictions. Most cannabis arrests, however, are enforced by local or state police, with penalties varying by state.

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The Biden administration has not moved forward with any marijuana reform, partly due to the struggle to pass bills through the Senate. Biden may be worried that supporting cannabis reform would hurt his approval ratings and affect the midterm elections later this year.

But how much could the president do without support from Congress? Legal experts say that he could instruct the Justice Department to deprioritize cannabis charges or use his ability to pardon individuals convicted of a federal crime to release those serving sentences for federal cannabis offenses.

As of now, the Biden administration has not taken serious action or consideration to legalize marijuana.

Final Thoughts on Marijuana Reform in 2022

Marijuana laws are changing across states. It’s time that federal marijuana laws reflect the will of the people. While a comprehensive cannabis legalization bill seems like a pipe dream, modest cannabis legislation is closer than ever to getting passed in Congress. Marijuana legalization may not be a reality in 2022, but it may be passed in the next few years.

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