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Senator Ron Wyden introduces S. 420, a bill to legalize marijuana

Baltimore to stop prosecuting marijuana possession cases

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a bill on Friday to decriminalize marijuana and allow for it to be taxed and regulated. The bill is titled S. 420, in a reference to marijuana culture.

The proposal, identical to a bill in the House, aims to ease the longstanding conflict between states where cannabis is legal in some form and the U.S. government, which categorizes marijuana as a dangerous illegal drug, similar to LSD or heroin. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that around half of all drug arrests are for marijuana possession. 

Many politicians have framed legalization as a criminal justice issue, as African Americans are more likely to be arrested on marijuana-related charges than whites.

"The federal prohibition of marijuana is wrong, plain and simple," Wyden, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Too many lives have been wasted, and too many economic opportunities have been missed."

It remains unclear if Wyden's bill would have a chance at clearing the Republican-controlled Senate.

The Democratic majority in the House appears more open to considering proposals to ease federal restrictions on marijuana. The chamber has set a hearing next week on a bill intended to make banking services more widely available for pot companies.

A proposal similar to Wyden's previously languished in the Senate and House. However, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat carrying the current bill in the House, said voters have "elected the most pro-cannabis Congress in American history."

"It's tough to see how things will shake out, but there is a very serious chance cannabis policy reform will move in the Senate," said Morgan Fox of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Most Americans live in states where pot can be legally purchased for medical or recreational use, and the move to loosen federal restrictions on marijuana came as the issue has played into the emerging 2020 presidential campaign.

The proposal would take marijuana off the federal controlled substances list and remove federal criminal penalties for individuals and businesses acting in compliance with state marijuana laws. The bill would allow marijuana to be taxed and regulated like alcohol, and reduce barriers for legal marijuana businesses to get access to banking.

The bill is part of a three-bill package: A second would impose a tax on marijuana products similar to federal excise taxes on alcohol, while a third would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to claim tax deductions and credits.

Justin Strekal, political director of the pro-legalization group NORML, said in a statement that the proposal is another sign of the "growing public support for ending our failed war on cannabis consumers."

Former House Speaker John Boehner, who sits on the board of cannabis company Acreage Holdings, announced on Friday the formation of an industry-backed lobbying group that would push for national marijuana reforms.