Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has thrown his weight behind ongoing efforts to legalize marijuana at the federal level, providing more momentum for a proposal that has gained traction since Democrats swept the White House, Senate, and House in November.
The move by Schumer, a canny political operator who took command of the Senate after Democrats won back the body in January, comes on the heels of legalization in his home state of New York.
Embattled Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) signed legislation late last month that immediately authorized New Yorkers to possess small quantities of marijuana while setting up a longer process for the establishment of dispensaries, delivery services, and legal home cultivation.
Under the law, New Yorkers are immediately able to possess up to three ounces of cannabis for recreational purposes or 24 grams of concentrated forms like oils.
It is expected that it will be more than a year before the larger changes take effect, but the policy itself marks a dramatic break from the so-called Rockefeller drug laws that defined New York's approach to marijuana since the 1970s.
Named after former Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-N.Y.), those laws were intended to address the rising use of hard drugs but instead became notorious for the harsh penalties they imposed for possession of even small amounts of drugs like marijuana.
In recent years, a growing body of evidence has shown that the Rockefeller drug laws, and particularly their mandatory minimum sentences, had a severe and disproportionate impact on people of color.
As part of New York's scheme to legalize marijuana, the state government is committing 40 percent of the revenue from taxes on the drug to flow to communities of color that have been affected by harsh drug laws.
That still leaves a significant haul for the state treasury, left reeling by the coronavirus pandemic. Some officials have estimated that taxing legal marijuana will generate $350 million per year for New York's coffers.
On a federal level, the Empire State's legalization means that 40 percent of Americans now live in states that have embraced fully legal marijuana. And, thanks to Schumer's intervention, it's possible the policy will become a nationwide law.
That's because Schumer is working with Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on a bill that will fully legalize marijuana nationwide. As the top Democrat in the chamber, Schumer can also force a floor vote on that legislation.
In a recent interview with Politico, Schumer said he would do just that, regardless of where President Joe Biden ultimately stands on the issue.
“I want to make my arguments to him, as many other advocates will,” Chuck Schumer told Politico. “But at some point, we're going to move forward, period.“
While Biden has not embraced full federal marijuana legalization, he has supported more limited measures that would amount to decriminalization. That more limited approach may also be more likely to overcome Republican opposition that could stall the bill in the Senate.
No matter what happens, the fight on federal marijuana legalization is coming to Washington. If it goes as it has in New York and other states, legal weed may soon reach every corner of the country.