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United States

Top US Senator Charles Schumer introduces bill to decriminalise marijuana

The legislation would leave it to states to decide whether to make marijuana commercially available

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 12:36am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 1:25am

The Senate’s top Democrat announced Friday that he is introducing legislation to decriminalise marijuana, the first time that a leader of either party in Congress has endorsed a rollback of some of the country’s oldest drug laws.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York in a statement called the move “simply the right thing to do”.

“The time has come to decriminalise marijuana,” Schumer said. “My thinking – as well as the general population’s views – on the issue has evolved, and so I believe there’s no better time than the present to get this done. It’s simply the right thing to do.”

Below is a video of legal marijuana sales in California that began earlier this year.

Schumer first shared his intentions on Thursday in an interview with Vice News, in which he decried the negative effects of current marijuana law, under which the drug has the same legal classification as heroin. 

“The time for decriminalisation has come, and I hope we can move the ball forward on this”
US Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer

He said that too many people caught with small amounts of marijuana had spent too much time in jail and that current laws have had a disproportionate effect on minority communities.

Marijuana legalisation, which spent years as a fringe political cause, has become increasingly popular with all voters and increasingly embraced by Democrats. 

In January, the Pew Research Centre found 61 per cent of Americans supportive of legalisation, with support reaching 70 per cent among millennials.

Last year, Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is seen by many Democrats as a potential presidential candidate in 2020, introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalise the drug nationwide.

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It was later endorsed by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, whose state legalised marijuana in 2015, and Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who is also seen as a potential presidential contender. 

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who endorsed a marijuana-legalisation initiative in California during his 2016 presidential campaign, endorsed Booker’s bill on Thursday.

Schumer is introducing separate legislation on Friday – a date, April 20 or 4/20, that is an unofficial holiday for marijuana users. His bill would not legalise marijuana outright, but instead allow states to decide whether to make the drug available commercially. 

It would end the limbo that marijuana sellers find themselves in, months after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that prevented federal law enforcement officials from interfering with the marijuana business in states where it had legal status.

“The bill lets the states decide and be the laboratories that they ought to be,” Schumer said. “It also will ensure that minority- and woman-owned businesses have a dedicated funding stream to help them compete against bigger companies in the marijuana business. Critically, we ensure that advertising can’t be aimed at kids, and put real funds behind research into the health effects of THC,” referring to the primary psychoactive substance in marijuana.

The legislation would also maintain federal authority to regulate marijuana advertising in the same way it does alcohol and tobacco advertising. The aim, Schumer said, is to ensure that marijuana businesses aren’t allowed to target children in their advertisements.

Schumer’s move was quickly celebrated by legalisation supporters, who began the week by thanking Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for fast-tracking a bill that would legalise industrial hemp.

“In the past week or so we’ve seen an unprecedented escalation of political support for marijuana law reform,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “It seems as if both parties may have finally realised just how popular marijuana legalisation is with voters and are afraid of the other party stealing the issue.”

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Democrats see the Schumer bill as part of a continuing effort to attract young voters, who tend not to participate in midterm elections. 

Schumer has also gotten behind a campaign to restore “net neutrality,” regulation that would prevent internet service providers from skewing the prices or download speeds for certain kinds of data.

“The time for decriminalisation has come, and I hope we can move the ball forward on this,” Schumer said.