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Cannabis in Congress: Fighting for legalization

by Mike May
Published: Aug 23, 2017   
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The morning of August 1, 2017, U.S. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker presented the Marijuana Justice Act. Its key goal is to federally legalize cannabis in the United States, which would provide access to recreational and medicinal users across the country. If this bill gets passed into law, the awkward imbalance between states that legalized some level of use will not be at odds with the federal government. The announcement went out on Facebook Live, and Senator Booker noted that U.S. states that have legalized cannabis in some uses are “seeing positive things come out of that experience.”

That bill goes even farther. For example, it would prevent someone from being deported for a cannabis-related offense. It calls for mechanisms to remove cannabis-based criminal records. The question is: How likely is the bill to reach the status of a law? It’s far too early to tell, but the United States has not been an easy place to pass cannabis-laws of any sort at the Federal level.

Poor odds

GovTracks.gov tracks the bills in the U.S. Congress and includes a metric of their likelihood of success. This metric, called the prognosis, comes from Skopos Labs, which uses artificial intelligence to develop predictions.

For the current 115th Congress, this site reveals a couple dozen cannabis-related bills. Of the ones that it lists—and the Marijuana Justice Act was not listed at the time of this reporting—this sites gives most of them only 1–2% chance of success.

GovTraks.gov gives two bills a 6% chance of success. One is H.R. 2215: SAFE Act of 2017, which Colorado Representative Ed Perlmutter introduced on April 27, 2017. This bill aims to protect institutions, like banks, that work with companies in the cannabis industry in states that allow it. A related bill in the U.S. Senate, S. 1152, gets the same odds of success 6%.

Part of the reason for low odds of success on cannabis legislation in the United States comes from a long record of failure. One telling example is the “Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act.” This series of bills tried to do just what the name says—end federal laws that make cannabis illegal. Government officials introduced this bill in 2011, 2013, 2015 and in the current Congress. It still hasn’t passed, and the Skopos Labs prognosis only gives it 9% of passing this time.

Some leaders in the United States fight against this ongoing legal failure. In response to Senator Booker’s bill, Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, said, “Not only is it imperative we end our failed experiment of marijuana prohibition, we must also ensure justice for those who suffered most under these draconian policies,” He added, “We applaud Senator Booker for introducing this robust legislation that would not only remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, but provide a path forward for the individuals and communities that were most disproportionately targeted by our nation’s failed war on marijuana consumers.” 

In the United States, though, it takes much more than applause to push a bill into law.


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