NEW YORK — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer renewed his calls on Friday for the federal decriminalization of marijuana, gathering some of his congressional colleagues in lower Manhattan to make his case after working to gain Republican support over the past several months.
“Change has been urgently needed for a long time,” Schumer said, highlighting the disproportionate impact marijuana laws have had on Black communities. “The good news is we’re on the edge of getting change, because the opinions throughout America are changing.”
Surveys in recent years have indicated a majority of Americans support legalizing the recreational use of pot. Last year, New York became the 15th state to legalize recreational use.
But congressional efforts to translate cross-party support into federal law have hit snags in the Senate.
The House passed a cannabis decriminalization bill late in 2020 on a mostly party-line vote. And in July, Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced draft legislation meant to dispense with cannabis’ classification under the Controlled Substances Act and to create a path for federal regulation.
The introduction of the 163-page draft bill in the Senate proved a symbolically potent moment, but has not yet borne fruit.
Schumer said Friday that he intends to intensify his outreach on the issue in the coming weeks and to introduce final decriminalization legislation before a nationwide push.
He said he hopes to finalize the bill in the next “several months,” and he met with drug policy activists late last month, discussing the need to pass legislation that targets inequities that resulted from past policies.
“As majority leader, I can set priorities. This is a priority,” Schumer said in a news conference, joined by New York Democratic Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Nydia Velazquez outside the Manhattan Municipal Building.
“All across the country, states are legalizing,” Schumer said. “All across the country, minds are changing.”
President Joe Biden has not, however, made marijuana laws a priority. Though the president supports decriminalizing marijuana, he has not supported legalizing it, and he did not immediately warm to the Senate proposal last year.
“The president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said last April.
Psaki noted that the president also supports moving marijuana from Schedule I, which includes heroin and LSD, to Schedule II, another category of high-risk drugs that includes cocaine and methamphetamine.
Schumer said he has not yet secured Biden’s endorsement for the legislation.
“We’re talking to the president on this issue,” Schumer told the Daily News.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Schumer also said a few Republicans have gotten behind the bill. “Not as many as we’d like,” Schumer added, noting significant support for decriminalization among Republican voters.
Schumer would need support from at least 10 GOP lawmakers to push the bill through the Senate.
In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana use. Today, 18 states have legalized recreational use, and 37 have legalized medical use, according to a count by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Deep-red South Dakota voted to legalize recreational marijuana use, though the vote was nullified by a court decision.
In the news conference, Nadler, the lead sponsor of the House decriminalization bill, blamed “misinformation” and “racially biased stereotypes” for America’s historically heavy-handed legal approach to marijuana.
And Velazquez described an opportunity to unlock economic opportunities for small businesses as she pointed to lopsided polling.
“Two-thirds of Americans believe it is time to legalize marijuana,” Velazquez said. “Congress must get on board with the times.”
Tim Balk, New York Daily News