Chuck Schumer wants to end the federal prohibition on weed: ‘The people are on our side’

After voters in Ohio overwhelmingly voted to legalize recreational marijuana last week, there is growing optimism that the rest of the country will soon follow.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer believes an end to the federal prohibition on marijuana is finally within reach, thanks to a bipartisan piece of legislation that would give the cannabis industry access to banking services — something that has been elusive since states first began to legalize recreational marijuana more than a decade ago.

“Its time has come,” Schumer told Yahoo News in a video interview, noting that public support of cannabis has dramatically increased in the last 10 years — as evidenced by voters in Ohio, a traditional Republican stronghold, overwhelmingly voting to legalize recreational marijuana last week and becoming the 24th state to do so. “The people are on our side.”

What is the SAFER Banking Act?

The Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation Banking Act, or SAFER Banking Act, which was passed in late September by a bipartisan majority in the Senate Banking Committee, would allow financial institutions to give out more small business loans while also providing legal protection for banks that work with cannabis retailers.

Chick Schumer stands next to a sign that reads End the Federal Cannabis Prohibition.
Schumer attends a press conference on legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Earlier versions of the bill passed in the House seven times but failed to get the 60 votes needed to make it through the Senate. Now, Schumer says he will move the current bill, reintroduced in September, forward to the Senate floor “as soon as we have those 10 or 11 Republican votes” needed, but he did not specify a date.

Proponents of the SAFER act say that, if passed, it will have an almost immediate positive effect on public safety by reducing the number of burglaries that have increasingly plagued cash-heavy cannabis businesses.

“Forcing legal businesses to operate in all cash is dangerous for our communities,” Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, lead sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “The only people benefiting from the current system are criminals.”

A customer holds cash.
A customer holds cash at the Housing Works Cannabis Co. on Dec. 29, 2022, the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in New York. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg)

But not everyone sees the bill as a positive move, with critics skeptical about whether the latest bill will pass in the GOP-controlled House, due to objections to parts of the legislation. The proposal would ultimately need to pass both chambers before heading to President Biden’s desk.

“The Senate’s rewrite … throws out carefully crafted bipartisan work and crams in gross overreach to potentially crush industries not in line with the president’s agenda,” Republican Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer told Politico in September. “As it’s currently written, it is dead on arrival in the House.”

‘We need change now’

Despite some opposition, Schumer says that many Republicans, who historically have been opposed to ending a federal prohibition on marijuana, are now beginning to reject long-held notions that marijuana use makes people more prone to violence. With time, he says, more states will get behind legalizing cannabis.

“Fifteen years ago, before marijuana was legalized anywhere, people said, ‘Oh, there'll be a lot more crime’, ‘People will become much more addicted’. Guess what? None of that happened,” Schumer said, noting the lasting harm of the so-called “war on drugs,” an effort dating back to the early 1970s that was initially championed as a way to rid the country of drug abuse but led to the harsh criminalization of Black and brown communities.

Demonstrators hold signs during a rally.
Demonstrators hold signs during a rally in Washington, D.C., in 2013. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, a human rights and racial justice-focused nonprofit, found that 43% of drug arrests in 2018 were for charges relating to the possession and sale of marijuana. Although data shows that white and Black Americans use marijuana equally, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than white Americans to be arrested in relation to using the drug, a figure that has remained largely unchanged for nearly a decade.

“The bill tries to rectify some of these injustices,” Schumer said.

Today, Black cannabis entrepreneurs make up less than 2% of the overall industry, according to Leafly, a cannabis news platform. Many struggle to secure the tens of thousands of dollars needed to compete for licenses, rent and product.

Marijuana displayed.
Marijuana displayed at MedMen in West Hollywood. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Baked into the bill, Schumer says, are key provisions to greatly increase that number, as the proposal “favors small minority businesses over the big ones.”

A real chance at equity?

For Al Harrington, the 16-year NBA veteran turned chief cannabis executive, any legislation that will benefit small business-owners, particularly those of color, is welcome news.

“This will give us a true opportunity,” Harrington, CEO and co-founder of Viola Brands, one of the largest Black-owned cannabis brands, told Yahoo News. “This industry needs cash … especially when you talk about Black-owned businesses and small minority-owned businesses that are trying to compete with some of these bigger companies that have multiple millions, and even billions of dollars, invested. It's very difficult if you don't have access to the capital.”

Al Harrington.
Former NBA player Al Harrington speaks at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in September. (Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Fast Company)

Since launching his company in 2011, which is named after his grandmother, whose debilitating glaucoma was only relieved after she tried cannabis, the former basketball star has been a leading advocate for reforming marijuana laws. In recent years, Harrington has frequently partnered with politicians like Schumer and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, to raise awareness and ensure that minorities aren’t left behind.

“We've seen this industry grow so much, and we see that it's a very prosperous business. But right now, there's a lot of people that are dying because of some of these barriers that are in place. So we need change now,” Harrington said.

As the legal sale of marijuana becomes more widely acceptable across the country, advocates have said that the people once criminalized for the drug should receive restitution by being able to legally take part in an industry that’s slated to have more than a $115 billion dollar impact on the American economy next year.

“We definitely have to have a seat at the table,” Harrington said. “And that's something I'm definitely fighting for every day.”

Randy Schroeder smokes during a marijuana legalization celebration.
Randy Schroeder smokes during a marijuana legalization celebration in St. Paul, Minn., In August. (John Autey/MediaNews Group/St. Paul Pioneer Press via Getty Images)

Support for marijuana legalization continues to grow

Overall, 7 in 10 Americans now favor legalizing marijuana in the U.S., according to a Gallup poll released this month, which is the highest number ever after the figure held steady at 68% over the last three years.

For Schumer, the SAFER Banking bill’s passage is bigger than politics for many – it’s a lifeline.

“There's so much that this bill could do,” Schumer said.

Cover thumbnail credit: Photo illustration: Carl Godfrey for Yahoo News; photos: Benigno Hoyuela via Unsplash, Kevin Diersch/Getty Images