3 Bills Coming to The Senate for Cannabis Legalization

Addressing decriminalization, social equity, excise taxes, and bank reform.

There are multiple major marijuana reform measures working their way through the legalization process right now: the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity (CAO) Act, and the Safe and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. All three have seen different iterations through the last few years and each has faced major hurdles in trying to get passed. Part of that is division – not just between parties, but among them.  There are many lawmakers who want to pass large bills that take care of every issue surrounding marijuana, legalization, criminal expungement, and social justice. However, those bills have a lot to argue about within them, making them unlikely to pass because of Republican intervention.  Other lawmakers would rather take care of individual problems like providing protection for marijuana businesses dealing with banks, but those politicians run into pushback from people who say their efforts are not enough. 


Representative Jerry Nadler (D, NY) sponsors the MORE Act. It would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances, meaning it would be immediately decriminalized. Further, it gets rid of criminal penalties for anyone growing or distributing the project, on top of possession. It passed in the House in April, with a slim majority of 220-204, with most Republicans voting against it. Now, it faces a bigger hurdle: the near-evenly divided Senate. Republicans have already argued that the MORE Act does not protect minors. 

A wooden gavel with green weed next to it on a wooden table

The MORE Act would decriminalize weed nationwide. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The MORE Act does make some efforts to appeal to both sides. For instance, the CAO Act would tax marijuana at 25%, and the MORE Act starts off at just 5%. 


Part of the divide surrounding marijuana legalization is that there are multiple pathways to legalization, and even Democrats are divided on how to go through the process. Senators Corey Booker (D, NJ) and Chuck Schumer (D, NY) are pushing for their own strategy with the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act. That the legalization bill goes much further than regulation and criminal expungement, and focuses more largely on community reinvestment, distributing tax dollars to communities most impacted by the War on Drugs

Two hands holding up a Criminal Background Check application

Cannabis criminal records would be expunged by CAO making it easier for previously incarcerated people to get jobs. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The Brookings Institute argues the CAO Act is the better way to go, but the MORE Act has spent more time in the headlines. Researchers with Brookings argue,

“The bill’s primary sponsors…placed racial justice at the center of this drug reform package that combines some of the best ideas and experiences in state legalization programs with existing research on the topic to address myriad, outstanding challenges in the cannabis policy space.” 

The problem is, social justice reform is largely a left-wing issue, and the bill would need votes from both sides. The bill would need ten votes from Republicans in the Senate, and so far, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. 


There’s another bill in the works that would help the marijuana industry in a different way: monetarily.  Right now, because marijuana is not legal at the federal level, most banks will not deal with cannabis-related businesses. That means many companies within the cannabis industry operate entirely in cash. That’s not only difficult, but can set them up for dangerous territory, making them a target for potential burglaries. And as Marijuanaleafexotics pointed out last year, 

“Those who put money into a bank that they got from a business involving cannabis can be charged with money laundering. The need to deal in all cash also runs the risk of attracting shady dealers who intend to use the business to launder money.”

The SAFE Banking Act would keep federal banking regulators from interfering with banks’ dealings with legal cannabis operations and would ensure they aren’t penalized for doing business with legitimate cannabis entities

A tall, city building with glass windows covering its sides and the word "Bank" in the corner.

More banks today can not working with cannabis businesses due to federal regulations. Photo credit: Shutterstock

One of the larger arguments against the SAFE Banking Act is that if it passes, it will only address a small issue, deprioritizing larger legalization and reform measures. Although it would solve an immediate issue, other lawmakers would rather focus on the more holistic approach, tackling legalization and banking regulation at the same time. Others argue that if legalization isn’t going to happen, we might as well take care of the banking problems now.   The SAFE Banking Act was introduced in March of 2019, and so far hasn’t gotten past the Senate. Senator Patty Murray (D, WA) was advocating for the bill as recently as April, saying:  

“It makes absolutely no sense that legal cannabis businesses are being forced to operate entirely in cash. It’s dangerous—and sometimes even fatal—for the employees behind the register, but this situation is also completely preventable. I’ve been pushing the federal government—particularly my Republican colleagues—to catch up with Washington state. I am working to update our laws so that these legal small businesses have a safe way to do business.”

Where Republicans Stand and How They Come Into Play

The pushback from the right isn’t what Americans have come to expect: Republicans aren’t simply saying “no” to legal weed; they want their own version of it. That version doesn’t account much for equity. Congresswoman Nancy Mace, a Republican who represents South Carolina, introduced the first marijuana legalization bill from her side of the aisle. It would decriminalize the product and create a framework to tax and regulate the industry. Those taxes are much lower than the left’s proposals, and the regulation is notably different. Mace’s bill would also expunge certain criminal records, though would not go nearly as far as the efforts by Democrats to clear people’s names.  “I tried to be very thoughtful about what I put in the bill that would appeal to Democrats and Republicans,” said Mace. “Which is why criminal justice reform is part of it. It’s why the excise tax is low.”

People raising their hands in a court room with dark blue and black suits on.

It always comes down to a vote. Photo credit: Shutterstock

One of the foundational views from conservatives is that government should be smaller, and therefore individual states should be able to decide things for themselves. Rep. Mace’s bill, the States Reform Act, leans into that. However, one cornerstone of the MORE Act is that it would still allow states to decide whether to allow marijuana in that region, even if the product is legally at the federal level – just as there are dry counties and municipalities with different regulations regarding tobacco products.  Republicans have been fairly open to the SAFE Banking Act, however. 106 Republicans in the House voted for it as a standalone bill. Though many lawmakers are against the idea of baby steps and would rather pass sweeping legislation that takes care of several issues at once, the SAFE Banking Act seems the most likely to have success any time soon. 


There is movement in the Senate and only time will tell what will pass first. What will be their focus; nationwide decriminalization, social equity, excise tax, or banking reform? Will it be settled in one sweeping bill like the MORE act or will we be passing smaller bills one by one? We can only be grateful that legalization is in the works for there was a time where this never seemed possible. 

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