Last month, the US House of Representatives took a major step toward repairing some harms of the drug war by passing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3884). This bill made history—marking the first time either chamber of Congress has voted to remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances, effectively decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level.
The measure also provides for the resentencing and expungement of federal marijuana convictions, and grants federal funding to jurisdictions for expungement services at the state and local level. Other provisions include diverting federal marijuana tax revenue back to individuals and communities most impacted by marijuana prohibition—to provide things like expungement and reentry services, as well as funding to bring in more justice-involved people into the regulated marketplace.
A Congressional Budget Office analysis of the bill showed that over a decade, the MORE Act would reduce time served by 73,000 years among current and future incarcerated people. As well as the human impact of such a reduction, the resulting decreases in federal prison spending and increased economic activity and tax revenues would generate billions in public funds.
After the bill’s passage, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the MORE Act “one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history.” While it was a significant step toward justice reform, last-minute provisions were added to the bill as it made its way to the floor, watering down its reach.
We cannot truly transform the criminal-legal system until we eliminate these arbitrary hierarchies of criminality.
For many of us in the criminal justice reform space, this is an all-too-familiar aspect of the legislative process. Both parties frequently react to promising bills by applying carve-outs and problematic exclusions to appease their more conservative members. In this case, it was Democratic lawmakers who made such moves.
First, they added language to the MORE Act that could potentially exclude people with marijuana convictions from participating in the regulated market at the federal level. Second, they amended the resentencing and expungement piece of the bill to exclude people with “kingpin” enhancements from expungement relief, and to make it clear that only individuals with “non-violent” marijuana offenses would be eligible for resentencing and expungement if the bill becomes law.
We believe that we cannot truly transform the criminal-legal system until we eliminate these arbitrary hierarchies of criminality.
The criminal justice system is inherently unjust. We know that people of color experience racial disparities and bias at every point of the system—from heightened policing and surveillance at the front-end to harsher sentencing at the back-end. With marijuana in particular, Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession despite nearly identical usage rates compared to white people.
Further, low-income people, who make up a significant portion of people in the criminal-legal system, experience more policing and often cannot afford effective assistance of counsel. In fact, adults in poverty are three times more likely to be arrested than those who are not. And people earning less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level are 15 times more likely to be charged with felonies, which carry longer sentences and often harsher collateral consequences.
Lawmakers must stop throwing people with criminal-legal system involvement under the bus out of political convenience.
Carve-outs and exclusions such as those in the MORE Act fail to account for racism and bias in the system. They also fail to recognize that all individuals, regardless of the charge that brought them into the criminal-legal system, can rehabilitate and must be given the opportunity to do so. In fact, some data suggest that people incarcerated with violent offenses may be less likely to recidivate, because many individuals age out of crime and people in this category tend to be older.
It comes down to this: Lawmakers must stop throwing people with criminal-legal system involvement under the bus out of political convenience—particularly people with conviction enhancements or those convicted of crimes of violence. As advocates, we must do a better job of holding this line—and of educating politicians as to why this strategy is counterproductive to transforming the criminal-legal system and dismantling its built-in inequities, while securing public safety.
It is clear that the MORE Act and support for marijuana reform more broadly are continuing to gain steam. A Politico-Morning Consult poll found that two-thirds of Americans viewed the House’s vote on the MORE Act favorably. And this past election cycle, we saw marijuana reform win big on ballot initiatives across the country. So, it is that much more important that we get these policies right.
In the next iteration of the MORE Act, which we will reintroduce in both chambers of Congress this year and aim to sign into law, we are committed to fighting to remove these problematic carve-outs and exclusions from the bill. We are determined to push forward a more inclusive bill, as imagined in the original vision of the MORE Act.