Jay Cowit: This is The Takeaway. I'm Jay Cowit, in for Melissa Harris-Perry. Good to be with y'all today. Melissa is back in the chair tomorrow, and hey, listen, happy 4/20 to those who celebrate.
Kegan: Hey, you know what? Let me hit that.
Speaker 3: Really?
Kegan: I can handle it. Oh, come on, I smoked a ton of weed in the '90s.
Speaker 3: Right, the '90s. Weed has gotten a lot stronger since then.
Kegan: You honestly think it's gotten so much stronger that I just flat out can't handle it. Do you think I'm such a lightweight that if I take one puff I'm just going to--
Speaker 3: Kegan, you already took a puff an hour ago. We've had the same conversation 15 times in a row.
Jay Cowit: Federal legalization of weed is also a conversation the nation continues to have, even as a majority of states have acquiesced to the idea of puff, puff, pass. By pass, we mean passing bills on a local level. Recent years have seen a wave of laws in state legislatures that make weed legal for medical and recreational purposes. If you're listening to this show, chances are you can do so while consuming weed legally in some way, shape, or form. Recent bills introduced in Congress point towards a future of possible bipartisan support for the drug's legalization on a federal level. We're going to talk about it. We know a guy.
Kyle Jaeger: My name is Kyle Jaeger. I am the senior editor of Marijuana Moment.
Jay Cowit: Kyle, your news site, Marijuana Moment, is all about weed, both the legal aspects of it, the political aspects of it, the cultural aspects of it. On this April 20th, 4/20/2023, what is the state of our marijuana union?
Kyle Jaeger: It's a year of incredible momentum at the state level and a lot of excitement about some federal development. We're at a place right now with 21 states that have legalized cannabis for adult use. Kentucky became the 38th state to legalize for medical use this year. We've got this enormous momentum behind this legalization movement. It's become so normalized in our society. There's still a lot of challenges ahead, and we still have a lot of abstinence in Congress before we get to a place where it's fully legalized. This is an exciting period for advocates for this burgeoning industry and for the consumers who love cannabis.
Jay Cowit: If the majority of states at this point have some form of statewide legalization of weed, I guess the question is, what's been preventing the legalization of weed federally?
Kyle Jaeger: The simple answer is there just hasn't been enough support in Congress. We have the majority of states that have legalized in some form at this point. We know public opinion backs legalization on a bipartisan basis, but we haven't had the votes, particularly on the Senate side where they need 60 votes, even with a democratic majority in the Senate last session, a legalization bill from the majority leader, Chuck Schumer, didn't advance because there was recognition that they didn't have the 60 votes, and Republican members are certainly the biggest obstacle, but even some democratic senators expressed skepticism or opposition last year. There's this glaring disconnect between the will of voters, what the states are doing, and how our congressional representatives are approaching this issue.
Jay Cowit: Certainly, we exist in a split government right now with the Dems holding the Senate, the Republicans holding the House. There may not be a great incentive to give a win on either side, regardless of whether it's bipartisan right now.
Kyle Jaeger: That's absolutely true. Republican leadership on the House side hasn't indicated any interest. If anything, key committee chairmans like Jim Jordan, who's chairing the Judiciary Committee, have been hostile toward this issue and toward the idea of broad legalization. If lawmakers weren't able to get something passed last session, it just seems fairly untenable to think that broad sweeping legalization is achievable in this Congress.
Jay Cowit: We know that so many states have legalized weed, but what would a federal legalization mean right now?
Kyle Jaeger: It depends how the federal government decides to approach this. If it's simple descheduling, even though that would have a profound effect on these state markets because right now they're locked out of banking services and other financial services that are available to other traditional industries. It would definitely boost the economy, provide access to capital for different communities to participate in the market.
It would likely embolden states that haven't come around toward legalization, who might just have medical, or who might not have anything at all to finally take that step because it's a refrain you hear very often, particularly in more conservative legislatures that they just are unwilling to move on this issue despite the popularity of it and despite the fact that the neighboring states have done it because marijuana remains a schedule I drug under federal law.
Jay Cowit: We know that the president can do a number of things with just a stroke of a pen, and he's done so already, and he can do more. Can you remind our listeners what President Biden has done on this level and what he may be able to do in terms of executive orders bypassing Congress entirely?
Kyle Jaeger: I think there's a lot of hope within the community that Biden takes that step and does something executively. President Biden issued a mass pardon last year affecting about 6,500 people, giving formal forgiveness for federal marijuana possession offenses. He also issued a directive to federal agencies, specifically the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department to carry out an administrative review into marijuana scheduling. Like I said, it's currently a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. That is the strictest category. It's up there with heroin.
What he's done is he's directed HHS, specifically FDA, to carry out a scientific review into cannabis. It's an eight-step scientific review. What they'll do is then take their findings, make a recommendation on either rescheduling it, placing it in a lower schedule, or fully descheduling it, or they could also recommend keeping it in schedule I. Then they give those recommendations and scientific findings to the DEA, and DEA has the final say. The scientific findings are binding, but DEA gets to decide what to do with it at that stage.
I think there's a little bit of a misconception about what the president can unilaterally do beyond what he's already done. This is the biggest step that he could take within the confines of federal statutes. The scheduling review is ongoing and it'll be very interesting to see where they land.
Jay Cowit: All right. We're talking about all things weed on 4/20. More on this right after the break. All right. We are back with Kyle Jaeger, senior editor of Marijuana Moment. Some of the criticism behind the pardon from President Biden for federal pot convictions is that it didn't necessarily free anybody up. It removed blame and liability, but there weren't that many people behind bars on federal marijuana charges. What impact is the state legalization or the state referendums having on minority populations?
Kyle Jaeger: Certainly when any state takes that step of legalizing marijuana, that means removing criminal penalties and removing the pretext for law enforcement to enforce criminalization of cannabis, which we know has disproportionately affected Black and brown communities. Black and brown people are four times more likely to be arrested over cannabis than their white counterparts despite comparable rates of usage. State efforts to legalize reduce those arrests. I would say though that legalizing it doesn't make every activity legal. There are still penalties and violations on the book.
The trends of racial disparities in enforcement of those laws has persisted in a lot of these states, and that's an issue that regulators and advocates continue to work on. I think in recognition of these disparities and recognition that the war on drugs, in general, has had extremely disparate impacts on these minority and low-income communities, that has informed legislation.
The legalization laws that we're seeing have evolved to prioritize things like licensing for people who've been disproportionately impacted and providing specific grants for community reinvestment, things to recognize and support where these harms have fallen. With the umbrella of federal prohibition, there's still these financial barriers that Black and brown communities in particular face in trying to enter these markets.
Jay Cowit: Recently, Republican representative Dave Joyce from Ohio and House Minority Leader, Hakeem Jeffries on the Democrat side, filed the Prepare Act. Tell me about the Prepare Act and what it's supposed to be doing on the federal level.
Kyle Jaeger: The Prepare Act is a bill that is fairly incremental and modest and bipartisan, where it is just directing the attorney general to create a 15-member commission to study legalization and look at different regulatory models, specifically with an eye toward regulating marijuana like alcohol. Then they would provide those recommendations. The intent there is to inform future legislation. That's the type of incremental step that I think is achievable in this divided Congress. While it recognizes the inevitability of legalization, it gives more time and more cover to lawmakers who are still on the fence.
This is something that we've seen play out a number of times at the state level, where lawmakers who are on the fence, who aren't quite ready to take the dive into enacting legalization and creating a regulated market, take that first step of creating a workgroup or a task force comprised of experts to study what other states are doing, what is unique about their state, and how their legalization laws might benefit from being different, providing those recommendations to the legislature. Then from there on out, we see different proposals form.
Jay Cowit: Overall, how much does normalization of consuming weed play into a lot of these things? It's pretty normal to go to a bar and have a beer. It's still somewhat new for a lot of our population to think about going into a store, legally buying a joint, walking right out on the street and smoking it, or smoking it at a party the same way you would drink a beer.
Do you think we're at a point in this country where normalization is inevitable? Or do you think that it's something that could fall into these various culture wars that we see in politics and in life so much that this could actually take a while for people to see marijuana as a normal legal recreational tool?
Kyle Jaeger: I'm talking to you from California. We've had a medical market for quite some time now, and we're a few years into our adult-use market. I can tell you, it's culturally very accepted to see dispensaries, to-- In Los Angeles, they even have cafes, social consumption cafes. We can go in, get a bite to eat, smoke a joint, and it's fairly well tolerated, I would say, societally, but it does take time.
We're still at a point where there are tobacco-smoking areas where marijuana isn't permitted. There aren't cannabis bars that are widespread. I think that it's taking a little bit of time for the culture to catch up and for people to find their comfort zones within this industry. At the same time, for states where these dispensaries and industries are entirely new, I think it just takes going into these dispensaries, seeing what a regulated retailer looks like, and recognizing that it's not much different than going into any other storefront selling vices.
I think there's definitely a social learning curve that we're still moving toward and would certainly benefit from federal legalization. I think it's only a matter of time before it becomes normalized in the way that we think about things like alcohol.
Jay Cowit: You think we'll see a presidential candidate who openly uses marijuana anytime soon?
Kyle Jaeger: I wouldn't be surprised if we see a member of Congress or two in the next couple of years, but active use under federal prohibition. That would be pretty stunning.
Jay Cowit: Kyle Jaeger is the senior editor at Marijuana Moment. Kyle, thank you so much for giving us your time today, and happy 4/20.
Kyle Jaeger: Thank you so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.