Hope soared with the possibility of federal cannabis reform in 2021. And for good reason – the induction of a new, more liberal administration, rapid state-level legalization, broad support by Americans, and growing bipartisan backing led many to believe that 2021 was going to be the year where federal decriminalization of cannabis would become a reality. But, as 2021 continued on, optimism dwindled as any advancement in federal cannabis reform was hobbled by the inability of Congress to agree on the appropriate level of reform and the proper mechanics for passage. Specifically, tension rose amongst the elected Democrats on whether to support incremental reform (like access to banks or removal of cannabis from the list of Schedule 1 drugs) or comprehensive legalization with provisions to address social inequities stemming from the legacy of the War on Drugs. And so 2021 came to an end, and the cannabis industry saw yet another year of failed meaningful change on the federal level.
Still, momentum for reform has not been lost. If anything, last year saw more bills introduced into Congress (including two new federal legalization proposals) than ever before – clearly indicating its import to our nation’s leaders. Justice Clarence Thomas from the Supreme Court even subtly advised Congress to address legalization, noting that the Federal Government’s current “half in, half out regime” on cannabis strained the principles of federalism.
And so, as we move forward in 2022 with hope, we review the bills before Congress and their progresses to assess which of these may have some traction for passage during this upcoming year.
Secure and Fair Enforcement (“SAFE”) Banking Act of 2021
Considered modest reform, the SAFE Banking Act of 2021 mainly focused on granting cannabis-related businesses access to federally-backed financial institutions. The bill was introduced early in 2021, and passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on April 20, 2021 by a vote of 321 to 101. At the time of the House’s passage, many believed the SAFE Banking Act of 2021 would easily move its way through the Senate, due – in part – to its demonstrated bipartisan appeal with 106 Republican votes in the House. Congressman Ed Perlmutter, one of its drafters, even remarked:
After years of bringing up this issue, I’m thrilled to see overwhelming support for this bipartisan, commonsense legislation in the U.S. House once again. I feel optimistic about the path forward for the SAFE Banking Act and, more broadly, reforms to our federal cannabis laws.
However, after its passage in the House, the SAFE Banking Act of 2021 languished in the Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Momentum for the bill slowed, with those opposing it campaigning for more comprehensive legalization. In late September 2021, fervor for the SAFE Banking Act of 2021 arose again when the House passed, by voice vote, an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 (“NDAA”) to add the SAFE Banking Act of 2021. Many hoped that by couching the SAFE Banking Act of 2021 in the NDAA, it would make it easier to pass through the Senate. On November 23, 2021, 4 Senators penned a letter to the Senate’s Armed Services Committee urging them to retain the SAFE Banking Act of 2021 in the NDAA. Despite these efforts, the SAFE Banking Act of 2021 was stripped from the NDAA on December 10, 2021 – stalling its progress once more.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment & Expungement (“MORE”) Act
The MORE Act is the oldest comprehensive legislative proposal. It was passed in the House in December 2020, during a lame-duck session, but never made any headway in the Senate. On May 28, 2021, Representative Jerrold Nadler reintroduced the MORE Act into the House and much of its substance provided the legislative stepping stones for the Cannabis Administrative and Opportunity Act (“CAO”).
The MORE Act aimed to end criminalization of cannabis by removing it from the list of controlled substances, eliminate related past criminal penalties and convictions, and provide essential criminal justice reform, social justice and economic development for those affected by the War on Drugs. The MORE Act also would tax cannabis products starting at 5% to 8% (increasing by 1% over 5 years) to help fund social reform projects, make Small Business Administration loans and services available to cannabis-related businesses, and prohibit denial of federal public benefits (like housing) and protections under immigration law on the basis of cannabis-related conduct or conviction.
After sitting in the House Judiciary Committee, the bill was finally approved in the Committee on September 30, 2021, with 2 Republican Representatives voting yes. This act sent the measure to the House floor for another vote before it could make its way to the Senate.
The Cannabis Administrative and Opportunity Act
Embracing the MORE Act’s goals for comprehensive reform, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (along with Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden) introduced the long awaited draft of the CAO into the Senate on July 14, 2021. Considered a historic and ambitious bill, the CAO aimed to implement a full-scale federal scheme for cannabis reform that reaches beyond just decriminalization. It hopes to provide restorative measures “to lift up people and communities who were unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs.” Specifically, the CAO seeks to do the following:
- Decriminalize cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act and automatically expunge any arrests and convictions for non-violent federal cannabis offenses;
- Transfer primary agency jurisdiction over cannabis to the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (“TTB”), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (“ATF”) so that cannabis can be federally regulated similar to alcohol and tobacco;
- Establish a Center for Cannabis Products responsible for regulating the “cannabis aspect of all products containing cannabis,” and implementing requirements related to cannabis products (g., good manufacturing practice, product standards, product labeling, product distribution and recall, etc.) within the FDA;
- Mandate federal research and studies regarding the impact of cannabis (including any benefits and/or impairments) on the human brain and health conditions and its impact on drivers under its influence;
- Permit movement of cannabis products through channels of interstate commerce;
- Establish Opportunity Trust Fund Programs funded by federal cannabis tax revenue to restore and reinvest in communities greatly impacted by the War on Drugs (including funds for job training, reentry services, legal aid, and youth recreation/mentoring programs) and to help level the playing field by granting entrepreneurs of color access to the cannabis industry through small business loans;
- Prohibit denial of federal benefits or immigration protection due to a past cannabis-related offense; and
- Impose federal excise tax on sale of cannabis products, starting at 10% and increasing up to 25% in a span of 5 years, with certain favorable tax credit for cannabis producers with less than $20 million sales.
Though the CAO has lofty goals, it does not force states to legalize cannabis, emphasizing the integrity of state-specific cannabis law.
As a draft bill, the CAO was subject to a review period in which its authors requested public comments by September 1, 2021. At the expiration of this review period, the drafters of the bill received numerous comments from both supporters and those criticizing the CAO as overly ambitious and a big-government approach. In particular, many critics take issue with the bill’s tax structure, calling the imposition of an ultimate 25% federal excise tax burdensome. Indeed, the CAO – as it stands – implements the highest tax structure for cannabis products of all the bills proposed in 2021. Many allege that the high federal tax in addition to any state-imposed tax could promote the illicit cannabis market rather than encourage business owners to engage legally. Additionally, the high federal tax could force states to reduce their own tax requirements, negatively affecting their own ability to fund state-run social equity and education initiatives.
For now, the public comments have been taken under advisement as the cannabis industry waits to see what the drafters decide to incorporate. Once formally filed, the CAO will be sent to a committee for continued discussions and revisions before it can be advanced to the Senate floor for a vote.
The States Reform Act
The States Reform Act (“SRA”) is the latest comprehensive reform bill led by Republican Representative Nancy Mace and introduced in the House in November 15, 2021. Like the MORE Act and the CAO, the SRA also seeks to decriminalize cannabis and provides retroactive expungement for non-violent federal cannabis offense, except for any person involved in a drug cartel. However, the SRA differentiates itself by limiting federal social equity reform programs. Instead, the SRA vests the authority to determine what level of cannabis reform, including outright prohibition, in the individual states. States will also retain authority to regulate the use, distribution, sale and manufacturing of cannabis, with some general federal oversight by the FDA, TTB, ATF and the Department of Agriculture. Specifically, the SRA aims to regulate cannabis like alcohol (and alcohol alone) – another substantial difference from the CAO. The SRA permits each state to determine the appropriate age limit for purchase of cannabis products, but incentivizes states to implement a 21+ limit by eliminating funding for highways for any state with an age limit of under 21 years of age and prohibiting advertisements directed at any person under the age of 21. The bill also seeks to provide veterans with access to medical cannabis without fear of discrimination or denial of Veteran Affairs benefits. The SRA also generally requires that medical cannabis be permitted for treatment of arthritis, cancer and chronic pain. Similar to the CAO, the SRA will also allow the interstate cannabis transportation.
Notably, the SRA provides the lowest tax structure for cannabis products in comparison to other reform proposals, with the proposed imposition of a single tax rate of 3% that cannot be increased for at least 10 years. Revenues from the tax would be used to support SBA programs for cannabis businesses, law enforcement initiatives including reentry programs, and veteran mental health programs.
Given its recency, little is known about the bill’s reception in the House and any progress that has been made. However, the SRA does carry potential bipartisan appeal, particularly because it is sponsored by 4 Republican Representatives. Additionally, it is anticipated that the Congressional Republicans will appreciate the SRA’s straight forward tax structure capped at a low rate for at least 10 years and its stance on states’ sovereignty regarding cannabis reform. The real issue for the SRA is its lack of restorative justice and social equity efforts, which may be its death knell in the current Democrat-controlled House.
Implications for 2022
There are now 4 bills (3 with comprehensive legislation) circulating Capitol Hill that could provide much needed cannabis reform in 2022. Congress will likely continue debating, revising and attempting to compromise on the terms in the MORE Act, the CAO and the SRA. Potentially, if the 3 comprehensive bills remain on the discussion table, they will compete with one another, potentially dividing the Legislators’ support. Congress should thus focus on forging a compromise or middle ground on these reforms to increase bipartisan support and avoid competing and inconsistent bills floating around, resulting in another year of unwanted (and unnecessary) deadlock. Indeed, the CAO could be an example of such needed compromise – especially if the drafters seriously heed the criticisms and comments provided during the bill’s review period and consider incorporating certain bipartisan elements of the SRA, like a more stream-lined and lower rate tax structure. With that said, the status of these cannabis reform bills, particularly the CAO and the MORE Act, face potential change should this year’s mid-term elections change the makeup of who controls the Senate, House or both.
Regardless, until Congress can iron out the kinks on comprehensive cannabis reform, the SAFE Banking Act of 2021 remains a practical law to pass in the interim. The SAFE Banking Act of 2021 is currently the least controversial of all the cannabis-reform bills, has substantial bipartisan appeal, and will provide immediate financial resources and relief to the largely cash-based cannabis industry. Though a small reform, it is still a necessary one that is long overdue. The SAFE Banking Act of 2021 (and its predecessors) has already made its way through the House 6 times, proving that federal lawmakers believe it will help cannabis businessmen. It may not resolve the issue of prohibition on cannabis, but its passage will likely be a great victory for the cannabis industry, signal federal de-stigmatization of cannabis, promote public safety by discouraging participation in the illicit cannabis market, and help cannabis-related businesses comply with tax laws.