The long-expected move by Senate Democrats to legalize cannabis use nationwide has finally begun as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Thursday introduced the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act. If enacted, it would bring an end to federal prohibitions on marijuana in a move that would also clear a path for radio stations to begin airing cannabis ads without the fear of reprisal from the Federal Communications Commission.
In the 38 states where marijuana has been decriminalized, most broadcasters have continued to reject cannabis ads fearing federal laws would be used by the FCC to either fine a station or put its licenses at risk. The Commission has never explicitly said that was a possibility, however, instead using its noncommittal to avoid weighing into a potentially controversial issue.
Schumer’s bill, which he drafted with Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Cory Booker (D-NY), does propose some limits on cannabis ads designed to limit the use of marijuana by people under the age of 21. Similar to how alcohol ads are voluntarily steered away from media outlets with a larger number of younger listeners, the bill would prohibit advertising cannabis products to anyone under 21.The Secretary of Health and Human Services would have two years after the bill became law to draft the ad rules.
The proposed legislation would also provide funding for a national public service media campaign geared toward preventing and reducing underage cannabis use. The Secretary of Health and Human Services and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would work together to spread the message about the negative consequences of underage use and cannabis-impaired driving. No specific media is listed, but the bill directs the agencies to use “multiple media sources” in a way “that is culturally- and linguistically-appropriate.”
Schumer called the bill a “catalyst for change” in a series of Twitter posts. “I say that it is past time to end the federal cannabis prohibition. And the bill we’re introducing today will update our cannabis laws and help reverse decades of harm inflicted by the War on Drugs, especially on communities of color,” he said.
Yet even as the bill was welcomed by marijuana legalization activists, its prospects of becoming law seem slim. A headcount by Politico says there are not the 60 votes needed to pass the bill, with opposition from both sides of the aisle as well as from some senators who represent states where cannabis has been legalized. For instance, Senator John Tester (D-MT) has said he supports his state’s legalization but still thinks the federal law should remain on the books. President Biden has also said he does not support federal cannabis legalization.
A Pew Research survey last year found that more than 90% of U.S. adults think marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use. But election year politics could overpower that, since the bill would also expunge cannabis-related criminal convictions, opening supporters to the much-feared “soft on crime” campaign attack.
But the U.S. Cannabis Council says it is only a matter of time before federal law will change. “The introduction of comprehensive cannabis reform legislation in the Senate, by none less than the Majority Leader himself, is the strongest sign yet that cannabis prohibition in America is nearing its end,” it said in a statement.
Another Path Forward
The Senate will have another opportunity to clear the way for cannabis ads on radio and television in the near-term. By a 220 to 207 vote on Wednesday, the House approved a series of budget bills that would create what amounts to a one-year moratorium on any FCC action against stations that air the ads as long as cannabis has been legalized in the state or jurisdiction in which the station is licensed.
The budget bill would prevent the FCC from using any money to deny a license renewal or a station sale application as punishment for airing advertising for cannabis or cannabis-derived products. The bill would also prohibit the FCC from requiring an early license renewal application to be filed by a station for taking those ads. And the FCC would be prohibited from issuing fines.
The bills have been sent to the Senate for approval, where broadcast lobbyists tell Inside Radio that they expect several senators to oppose the liberalization of drug advertising rules.
The Senate Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism has scheduled a hearing for next week (July 26) on marijuana decriminalization.