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Senate moves to legalize pot at federal level. What are the chances?

Sasha Hupka, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — The Senate is preparing to wade into a controversial conversation about federal policies on marijuana after Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from New York, released draft legislation this month that would legalize weed at the federal level.

The draft bill, known as the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, follows a similar bill that passed the Democratic-controlled House in December and comes as recent polling from the Pew Research Center shows that about 60% of Americans support legalizing marijuana for recreational and medical use.

But Senate Democrats have a lot to balance over the next several months, tasked with drafting and passing legislation on issues such as infrastructure, policing and immigration that President Joe Biden has marked as priorities. As the draft bill jump-starts discussion on Capitol Hill, here's a look at where marijuana legalization might go.

—Isn't pot already legal in many states? What would a federal bill do?

Weed has been fully legalized for recreational use in 18 states, starting with Colorado and Washington in 2012. A total of 37 states have approved medical marijuana. In California, cannabis has been legal for medical use since 1996 and for recreational use since late 2016.

But cannabis is still illegal under federal law, where it is classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.


Possession of marijuana remains a federal offense, punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction.

Because of federal restrictions, marijuana producers and retailers face significant logistical challenges with banking, transporting goods and paying taxes, even in states where the drug is legal.

In 2019, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and California's then-Sen. Kamala Harris, now vice president, introduced legislation in both chambers of Congress that would have decriminalized marijuana and expunged some criminal records, among other things.

The House passed the legislation in a 228-164 vote in December 2020. It was the first time legislation to remove cannabis from the Schedule I list made it to a floor vote.


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