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The federal government is still living in the era of ‘reefer madness’: Sen. Wyden

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Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) joins Julie Hyman and Jessica Smith to discuss why it is time for the federal government to legalize marijuana and the recent developments with the infrastructure bill.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: Federal marijuana legalization, it is sort of the Holy Grail, if you will, that marijuana activists have been pushing for, for a long time. And it may be just a little bit closer to reality with a discussion draft of legislation that is being proposed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, as well as Senator Cory Booker and Senator Ron Wyden. And Senator Wyden is joining us now, Democrat of Oregon, along with our Jessica Smith in Washington.

Senator Wyden, thank you so much for being here. This is something, as I mentioned, that has been percolating for many, many years, but of course, has gained momentum with all of the state legalization. What goal, do you think, would be achieved by ending the federal prohibition on marijuana?

RON WYDEN: The federal government is still living in the era of Reefer Madness. The feds are just completely disconnected with what's really going on out on the ground across America. And we've seen in Oregon, where we legalized adult use in 2014, and the skeptics said, "Oh my goodness, Western civilization is going to end. People are going to be so confused. The law isn't going to work." We didn't see any of that. And revenue, which is used for priorities, like education and mental health, has gone up six-fold in a very short time.

JESSICA SMITH: --here. I'm curious about the taxation portion of this, something you've worked on as chairman of the Finance Committee. Can you walk us through how that would work under your proposal and what your thinking was on that issue?

RON WYDEN: Our thinking was, first and foremost, treating cannabis like you treat alcohol and tobacco. That was number one. And number two, we wanted to give a real leg up to small businesses and minority entrepreneurs. So for example, the tax rate for them would be something like one-half of what it is for the big guys. And that's kind of consistent with our priorities.

And I'm often asked, so where does the money go? The money goes to try to address some of the harm that was caused by the failed war on drugs, and particularly, give our small businesses a real shot at creating good paying jobs. I recently-- and people always ask, where do you get your information, Ron? I have all these town hall meetings.

And a few days ago, I was in Astoria, Oregon, and I went to a dispensary. And what they said is, for the first time in a long time, they're making good wages. They're getting healthcare. They get benefits. They just want to know how their small business can grow. And that's what the Majority Leader Senator Schumer, Senator Booker, and I are focused on.

JULIE HYMAN: Senator Wyden, it's always interesting to me to hear folks compare marijuana to alcohol. Because obviously, in terms of its cultural acceptability, it's getting there, but it's not at the same level. I mean, do you think that that is part of this as well? Are you going to cocktail parties in Oregon where everybody is smoking instead-- or vaping or having edibles, instead of drinking cocktails? And is that sort of part of this, making it more sort of culturally acceptable?

RON WYDEN: The way I would characterize it is when I talk to folks at home and people come through Washington, people say it just defies common sense to not have sensible federal policy. And that means regulatory policy. So you have oversight to ensure public health. We just talked about taxes. And I call it cannabis common sense. It's just overdue. And, you know, the government just, particularly the federal government, seems so disconnected from reality.

JESSICA SMITH: Senator, the president has campaigned for decriminalization, so not quite as far as you want to go. Are you confident that you'd be able to get President Biden on board with this?

RON WYDEN: What we've always felt-- and that's why we're going to use the comment period, for example-- what we described yesterday was another period, between now and September 1, for people's comments. We believe this legislation will get sent to the Senate Finance Committee, where I'm the chair. We'll have hearings. I'm eager to have those hearings. And so often, on these kinds of issues, political change is sort of grassroots up. It's not coming from necessarily the top.

But I'll tell you, I think there are a lot of powerful arguments to make this a bipartisan issue as we go. I mean, the fact is blue states and red states have legalized. The fact is that we have a powerful state rights argument. What we do is decriminalize at the federal level. But we don't force a state to legalize.

And I think my colleagues are going to have other constituents come up to them and say, this is going to promote the opportunity for safer, fairer conduct with respect to cannabis in every part of the country, with sensible oversight, sensible health policies, sensible tax policies. And I think under what we're proposing, while we're not forcing the states to act, so it is a real states' rights approach, we create an incentive for the kinds of reforms we're looking.

JESSICA SMITH: I did want to switch gears a bit and talk about the reconciliation debate that we're seeing play out, this $3.5 trillion budget plan. You've said that this is going to be paid for. We're expecting tax hikes on the wealthy and on corporations. Can you talk about some of the specific ways that you plan to do that, that you plan to raise this revenue?

RON WYDEN: Well, first of all, what we're doing here is investing in the American people. We're investing in roads and bridges and transportation systems. And we're investing in people, for example, to make sure that broadband is available from sea to shining sea, no matter how rural your area is.

Now I feel very strongly that we're not going to raise taxes on working people. We're going to hit the pledge that the president has made to ensure that it doesn't happen, that those working families don't see tax hikes.

And the focus of what I'm going to do in the Senate Finance Committee is to eliminate the tax dodges that the super wealthy are able to use to basically figure out how to pay little or nothing in taxes, sometimes for years on end, and utilize these tax dodges, these tax loopholes, to basically not pay taxes and do something that no working person gets to do because they pay taxes with every single paycheck.

JULIE HYMAN: Senator Wyden, thank you for being here. We'll delve a little bit more into the spending package and infrastructure next time we have you on, and of course, get an update on this marijuana legislation, too. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and our Jessica Smith, thanks to you both. Appreciate it.