Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told his colleagues on the Senate floor that 20 April – or “4/20” – is “as appropriate a time as any” to revive the push to legalise marijuana at the federal level and end a decades-long war on drugs that has disproportionately criminalised minority Americans.
“Today is what you might call a very unofficial American holiday,” he said on Tuesday.
The New York senator and top-ranking Senate Democrat announced earlier this month that he intends to revive his call to lift federal cannabis prohibition, with a razor-thin Democratic majority in Congress, after his home state legalised recreational marijuana, expunged criminal convictions and opened a pathway to a billion-dollar cannabis industry.
“For decades, young men – disproportionately young men and women of colour – are arrested and jailed for even carrying a small amount of marijuana, a charge that often came with exorbitant penalties and a serious criminal record from which they may never recover,” he said on Tuesday.
“It makes no sense,” he said. “It’s time for change.”
He is working on new legislation with Senators Ron Wyden and Cory Booker.
US Rep Hakeem Jeffries, who also has worked on legalisation legislation in previous years against a Republican-controlled Congress, told reporters on Tuesday that he is “super encouraged” by the senator’s push.
“I think we’re going to be able to get something done particularly because we’ve got affirmative visionary leadership” from Mr Schumer, he said.
Earlier this month, the senator said that “the war on drugs has been a war on people, and particularly people of colour”.
Joe Biden has not supported arguments to expand legalisation at the federal level, but Senator Schumer told Politico that he’s willing to move legislation forward with or without the president’s support.
“I certainly will have an ongoing conversation with him, and tell him how my views evolved. And hope that his will to,” Mr Schumer told the outlet. “But at some point we’re going to move forward, period.”
New York is the latest state among 16 others and Washington DC to legalise marijuana for recreational use.
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation into law on 31 March that “provides justice for long-marginalised communities, embraces a new industry that will grow the economy, and establishes substantial safety guards for the public”, he said in a statement.
New Yorkers aged 21 and older are now allowed to possess up to three ounces of cannabis for recreational use, or 24 grams of concentrated forms. The state will implement a regulatory framework for future use in the coming months.
The law also creates “automatic expungement” of previous marijuana convictions for possession that is no longer criminalised – a reversal that will impact thousands of New Yorkers.
It also aims to help people with previous convictions as well as people involved with selling marijuana illegally to participate in the state’s burgeoning legal market.
After the White House announced that five staffers were fired for past marijuana use, a group of congressional Democrats urged the president to “clarify your employment suitability policies, remove past cannabis use as a potential disqualifier, and apply these policies with consistency and fairness”.
“Repercussions for cannabis use have always been unequal and those with the most power have always faced the fewest consequences,” they added. “We ask that you don’t allow that pattern to continue within your administration.”
National public opinion has shifted dramatically over the years to favour marijuana’s legalisation, while a majority of US states legalise medicinal use in some form.
A recent Pew Research Poll found that as many as 91 per cent of Americans support marijuana legalisation, with 60 per cent believing it should be legal to use recreationally, and 31 per cent believing it should be allowed only for medicinal use.