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New Jersey will be the latest state to allow sales of recreational marijuana -- one of 19 states where such sales are legal or about to begin. But it’s still illegal under federal law. William Brangham talks with Politico’s Natalie Ferteg about the challenges this disconnect creates for businesses and broader decriminalization efforts, and where efforts on federal marijuana legislation stand.
Tomorrow, New Jersey will become the latest state to allow the sale of recreational marijuana to people over 21. It's one of 19 states where such sales are legal or about to begin.
But, as William Brangham reports, these states are legalizing cannabis, a substance that remains illegal under federal law.
Roughly 40 percent of Americans now live in states where marijuana is legal, but because of the drug's federal status, cannabis businesses struggle with banking and pay extremely high tax rates.
So, will lawmakers here in Washington address this divide?
Joining me now is Natalie Fertig. She covers marijuana policy for Politico.
Natalie Fertig, Politico:
So, New Jersey is making this move, joining all of these other states.
We know that the House has passed a bill that would legalize is marijuana.
What is its status, and what would it do?
So, the bill technically would decriminalize marijuana. It would make it federally legal or decriminalized to possess and to use cannabis, but then it would leave it up to the states whether they then want to legalize cannabis and allow people to produce it and sell it and tax it.
That's kind of similar to how America's alcohol laws work. The bill would also expunge some cannabis-related records, and it would create some social equity programs, which would give funding to people who want to get into the industry who've been disproportionately hurt by the nation's marijuana laws up to this point.
Does that have any chance of passage? Is the Senate going to take it up?
It's a really complex question. I mean, we're sitting here in April of 2021 — '22. What year is it?
It's hard to keep up.
And this was something that Democrats talked about when they ran in 2020. And we don't have a lot of Congress left in this — in this time period for the Senate to take this up and work on it. Senator Schumer has said that this is a priority for him. But he has also said that he's not going to have a bill until about just before the August recess.
That really leaves an even smaller amount of time for the Senate to deal with something that is an incredibly complex problem or — to solve.
There's this other issue and a piece of legislation about banking, which I mentioned before, that does seem to have more bipartisan support.
Again, what would that do, and how likely is that to pass?
Yes, so where decriminalization doesn't even have all Democrats on board, the banking bill has Republicans on board.
The problem with the banking bill, which would let cannabis businesses access small business loans and get banking accounts, which, currently, because it's a federally illegal substance, they can't do, that bill has more support from Republicans, but it doesn't have support from all of the progressive Democrats.
So, Senator Schumer specifically and Senator Cory Booker have said, we don't want this bill to pass unless there are other elements incorporated into it or passed alongside it that would help people who have been hurt by the war on drugs.
So there's this growing sort of concept within the Democratic Party, especially progressive Democrats, that definitely came out of everything that happened in the summer of 2020 with George Floyd and this increased focus on criminal justice reform that you can't allow people to make money off cannabis without helping people who have been put in jail previously for making money off cannabis.
So that's really kind of where this divide has come down to now, and that's holding up the banking bill.
If the federal government were to act cohesively on this and give states the green light, is there a sense that more states would suddenly become like New Jersey and jump on board?
There's definitely states that use federal illegality as an excuse to not legalize. It's unclear whether or not they would just find another excuse after that happened, or if there are truly lawmakers in those states that are just waiting for the federal government to give them the green light.
I think that states will still have to deal with the same issues that the federal government is dealing with. And those issues tend to hold up cannabis legalization, even in states that really, really want it. We saw this happen in New York, which tried multiple times to legalize cannabis, but the details really held them back.
So I don't think that we would suddenly see 15 states legalize weed the minute that the federal government's laws changed.
Before these states started to legalize, there was a lot of concern raised by critics that teenagers are going to suddenly be using a lot of marijuana, that there's going to be motor accidents because everyone's going to be stoned and driving.
With this national experiment happening, is there evidence that any of those fears have come to pass?
So, that's a really complex question, mostly because there is not great data.
We have small data points on each of those things from different states. But in almost every circumstance, there's another data point to either caveat or to compare against that sort of conflicts with the data. A lot of that is because cannabis is not federally legal. A lot of the data we would need to really understand the impact of cannabis on a national level would take the resources of the federal government to understand.
So, while the sky hasn't fallen in, there are not thousands of or tens of thousands of new teenagers, there's not 6-year-olds smoking joints on the street corner, we don't really know the full extent of impact on all of the things that you just mentioned, which is rather unfortunate, given that it's been almost 10 years.
Natalie Fertig of Politico, thank you so much for being here.
Thanks for having me.
And very helpful to have that update.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
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