Long-time marijuana legalization advocate Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D., Oreg.) is optimistic about the chances of ending the federal prohibition of marijuana now that Democrats control both chambers of Congress.
On Monday, the House passed the SAFE Banking Act with support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The bill would ensure legitimate cannabis businesses have access to banking services. The House has passed the bill several times in the past, but it previously stalled in the Senate when it was controlled by Republicans.
"It's the difference between night and day," said Blumenauer in an interview with Yahoo Finance Live. "We had more progress in the last Congress than ever before with the MORE Act, with my research bill, with the SAFE Banking Act — but it all went to Mitch McConnell's hospice in the Senate. Now, we are in an entirely different dynamic." (The MORE Act, passed by the House in December, ends the federal prohibition of marijuana; the Senate hasn't taken up the bill yet.)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) is working on a comprehensive marijuana reform package with Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Oreg.) — which will include ending the federal prohibition.
"My thinking on this issue has evolved. A number of states, including very recently my home state of New York, have legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults and those experiments by and large have been a success. The doom and gloom predictions made when states like Colorado or Oregon went forward and decriminalized and legalized never occurred," said Schumer on the Senate floor on Tuesday. "The American people are sending a clear message that they want this policy changed."
The bill the senators are working on will also include restorative justice measures, public health provisions and proposals for taxes and regulations. Schumer said he's hopeful by the "unofficial" 4/20 holiday next year, Congress will have made progress on "addressing the massive over-criminalization of marijuana in a meaningful and comprehensive way."
Blumenauer told Yahoo Finance having Schumer, Wyden and Booker working on the issue is a boost to reform efforts. He's confident the SAFE Banking Act will can make it through the Senate, even though Democrats only have the majority with Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote.
"Having those three people and the fact that this is not going to be bottled up," said Blumenauer. "If it gets to the floor, it'll pass."
"I think that's likewise what will happen with research and ultimately with legalization. You've watched this last year result in a tidal wave. We've had more states on the state level that have approved, public opinion is strong. I've been working on this literally for 50 years," he added. "The stars are aligned for being able to move this forward — and I think finally enacted into law.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, told reporters earlier this year he would want to see sentencing reforms included with the SAFE Banking Act — but Blumenauer argues there's no need to make the banking bill a comprehensive reform package.
"We are committed to the MORE Act — which is comprehensive, and strongly support things like restorative justice — but this is a fundamental public safety issue. I mean, in my community, we've had over 100 robberies and including one fatality, and this is happening around the country. It's a public safety issue," said Blumenauer.
Blumenauer makes the case that incremental changes, like giving legitimate cannabis businesses access to banking services, will build momentum for eventual legalization.
"We get people on the record and people paying attention to the issue and mobilizing the vast array of people who support it," said Blumenauer. "We're on the verge of major initiatives."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday declined to say whether President Biden would sign a federal legalization bill if it made it to his desk — noting that the president supports decriminalization at a federal level, allowing cannabis research, expunging prior convictions and legalizing medicinal marijuana.
"I just have outlined what his position is, which isn’t the same as what the House and Senate have proposed, but they have not yet passed a bill," said Psaki in the press briefing.
Schumer told Politico this month the Senate would move on legalization with or without Biden's support.
"It'll be legalized by Congress," said Blumenauer. "I think Mr. Biden is looking at some of his criminal justice activities in the past a little differently, but all we need for the federal government to do is stay out of the way — and I'm confident that he will do that."
Jessica Smith is chief political correspondent for Yahoo Finance, based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.