The Senate's top Democrat announced Friday that he is introducing legislation to decriminalize marijuana, the first time that a leader of either party in Congress has endorsed a rollback of one of the country's oldest drug laws.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in a statement called the move "simply the right thing to do."
"The time has come to decriminalize 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."
Schumer first shared his intentions Thursday in an interview with Vice News, in which he decried the negative effects of current marijuana laws, under which the drug has the same legal classification as heroin. He said 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 legalization, 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 Center found 61 percent of Americans supportive of legalization, with support reaching 70 percent among millennials.
Last year, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who is seen by many Democrats as a potential presidential candidate in 2020, introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalize the drug nationwide; it was later endorsed by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., whose state legalized marijuana in 2015, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who is also seen as a potential presidential contender. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who endorsed a marijuana-legalization initiative in California during his 2016 presidential campaign, endorsed Booker's bill Thursday morning.
Schumer is introducing separate legislation on Friday - a date that is an unofficial holiday for marijuana users. His bill would not legalize 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 It would end the limbo that marijuana sellers find themselves in, months after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that prevented federal law enforcement officials from interfering with the marijuana business in states where it had legal status.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 legalization supporters, who began the week by thanking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for fast-tracking a bill that would legalize 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 realized just how popular marijuana legalization is with voters and are afraid of the other party stealing the issue."
Democrats see the Schumer bill as part of an ongoing 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 decriminalization has come, and I hope we can move the ball forward on this," Schumer said.