With a vote on a bill to federally legalize marijuana set for House floor consideration this week, lawmakers released a report on the legislation on March 24 that effectively previews the partisan debate to come, with the majority and minority leaders of a key committee making their arguments for and against the reform.
The 483-page report prepared by the House Judiciary Committee provides an extensive overview of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which is sponsored by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).
Leadership announced late last week that the bill to end federal prohibition would be taken up on the floor for the second time in congressional history. It passed the House in 2020 but saw no action in the Senate. Then, in September, it again cleared the sponsor’s panel for the current session.
The bill is expected to hit the House floor sometime between March 30 and April 1.
Before it heads to the floor, there will be a House Rules Committee meeting on March 30, where members will decide whether any proposed amendments can be made (lawmakers have already begun filing these amendments). The hearing was initially scheduled for for two days earlier, but was pushed back over the weekend for unknown reasons.
“Enforcement of marijuana laws has been a key driver of mass criminalization in the United States,” the new report’s background and need for legislation section states. “The drug war has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups, manifested through significant racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system.”
It further describes the collateral consequences of cannabis arrests and convictions, including the loss of opportunities for employment, voting rights, housing, education, government assistance and more, saying that “these exclusions create an often-permanent second-class status for millions of Americans.”
“Like drug war enforcement itself, these consequences fall disproportionately on people of color,” it says. “For non-citizens, a conviction can trigger deportation, sometimes with almost no possibility of discretionary relief.”
“Today, overcriminalized communities continue to suffer the consequences of failed drug policies.”
“Today, overcriminalized communities continue to suffer the consequences of failed drug policies, even in states that have legalized marijuana, where arrests have dropped for marijuana crimes. Public support for making marijuana legal has increased over the past two decades. The resulting trend in state-level legalization of marijuana has placed states in apparent conflict with federal law and, as a result, the Justice Department has struggled with how to continue to uphold federal law in this context.”
The report also touches on other unique challenges that state-legal marijuana industries face under the status quo of federal prohibition, including barriers to accessing financial services through traditional banking services which have resulted in public safety issues for cannabis businesses that have become targets of crime because many operate on a largely cash-only basis.
The MORE Act presents solutions to these challenges and would help align federal policy with those that have been enacted in a majority of states as the legalization movement continues to expand, the report authors wrote.
Separately from the report, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) wrote in a Dear Colleague letter to fellow lawmakers that the MORE Act is “critical legislation that will restore justice to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by harsh penalties for possessing even small amounts of marijuana.”
The bill is expected to hit the House floor sometime between March 30 and April 1.
A section-by-section analysis in the extensive report describes the main components of the proposal. Here’s a breakdown:
Nadler’s MORE Act would deschedule marijuana by removing it from the list of federally banned drugs under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). However, it would not require states to legalize cannabis and would maintain a level of regulatory discretion for states.
Marijuana products would be subject to a federal excise tax, starting at 5 percent for the first two years after enactment and rising to 8 percent by the fifth year of implementation.
Nobody could be denied federal public benefits based solely on the use or possession of marijuana or a past juvenile conviction for cannabis. Federal agencies couldn’t use “past or present cannabis or marijuana use as criteria for granting, denying, or rescinding a security clearance.”
People could not be penalized under federal immigration laws for any cannabis-related activity or conviction, whether it occurred before or after the enactment of the legalization legislation.
The bill creates a process for expungements of non-violent federal marijuana convictions.
Tax revenue from cannabis sales would be placed in a new “Opportunity Trust Fund.” Half of those tax dollars would support a “Community Reinvestment Grant Program” under the Justice Department; 10 percent would support substance use treatment programs; 40 percent would go to the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) to support implementation and a newly created equitable licensing grant program.
The Community Reinvestment Grant Program would “fund eligible non-profit community organizations to provide a variety of services for individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs … to include job training, reentry services, legal aid for civil and criminal cases (including for expungement of cannabis convictions), among others.”
While the bill wouldn’t force states to adopt legalization, it would create incentives to promote equity.
The program would further support funding for substance use treatment for people from communities disproportionately impacted by drug criminalization. Those funds would be available for programs offering services to people with substance use disorders for any drug, not just cannabis.
While the bill wouldn’t force states to adopt legalization, it would create incentives to promote equity. For example, SBA would facilitate a program to providing licensing grants to states and localities that have moved to expunge records for people with prior marijuana convictions or “taken steps to eliminate violations or other penalties for persons still under State or local criminal supervision for a cannabis-related offense or violation for conduct now lawful under State or local law.”
The bill’s proposed Cannabis Restorative Opportunity Program would provide funds “for loans to assist small business concerns that are owned and controlled by individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs in eligible States and localities.”
The comptroller general, in consultation with the head of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), would be required to carry out a study on the demographics of people who have faced federal marijuana convictions, “including information about the age, race, ethnicity, sex, and gender identity.”
The departments of treasury, justice and the SBA would need to “issue or amend any rules, standard operating procedures, and other legal or policy guidance necessary to carry out implementation of the MORE Act” within one year of its enactment.
Marijuana producers and importers would also need to obtain a federal permit. And they would be subject to a $1,000 per year federal tax as well for each premise they operate.
The bill would impose certain packaging and labeling requirements.
It also prescribes penalties for unlawful conduct such as illegal, unlicensed production or importation of cannabis products.
The treasury secretary would be required to carry out a study “on the characteristics of the cannabis industry, with recommendations to improve the regulation of the industry and related taxes.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) would be required to “regularly compile, maintain, and make public data on the demographics” of marijuana business owners and workers.
Workers in “safety sensitive” positions, such as those regulated by the Department of Transportation, could continue to be drug tested for THC and face penalties for unauthorized use. Federal workers would also continue to be subject to existing drug testing policies.
References to “marijuana” or “marihuana” under federal statute would be changed to “cannabis.” It’s unclear if that would also apply to the title of the bill itself.
The bulk of the Judiciary Committee report is the text of existing federal statute of the CSA with conforming amendments. It’s followed by a “committee correspondence” section, with letters from leadership of various panels to which the bill was referred waiving jurisdiction to clear the way for floor action.
Then there’s a “minority views” section, authored by Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-OH). What he wrote may provide a preview of the opposing arguments that could come to the fore when the bill is up for debate on the floor.
“This extreme and unwise bill would open the floodgates to marijuana cultivation, distribution and sale.”
“This bill is an enormous federal subsidy and stimulus for the marijuana industry,” it states. “This extreme and unwise bill would open the floodgates to marijuana cultivation, distribution, and sale within the United States—allowing bad actors and transnational criminal organizations to further exploit America’s addiction crisis.”
It also complains that the legislation would create a “significant federal bureaucracy that would include new taxes, expansive grant programs, and a federal licensing regime.” The minority view is that the reform would also “incentivize bad actors and transnational criminal organizations to flood American streets with drugs.”
The ranking member’s report section says the MORE Act “fails to set limitations on the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol in marijuana or its extracts or concentrates.” But it seemingly contradicts itself by saying that while “some states have placed limits on the tetrahydrocannabinol in marijuana concentrate products, none of the states that have legalized marijuana have placed any such restrictions.” In fact, Vermont has enacted a THC potency limit on legal cannabis products.
The minority feels that the bill does not sufficiently address preventing youth marijuana consumption, including by declining to “ban flavored marijuana that may be appealing to teenagers.” But as multiple studies and top federal drug officials have consistently pointed out, there hasn’t been evidence that state-level legalization leads to increased underage use; rather, it appears that creating regulated marijuana markets where IDs are required for sale, for example, could deter teen usage.
“H.R. 3617 would open the floodgates of marijuana cultivation, distribution, and sales throughout the United States with little to no controls whatsoever,” the minority opinion states. “Bad actors, domestic criminal enterprises, and transnational criminal organizations would exploit the numerous loopholes in this legislation. Moreover, this bill is an enormous federal subsidy and stimulus for the marijuana industry. Instead of holding hearings on the growing crisis at our southern border, the Democratic majority is focused on prioritizing legislation that would legalize marijuana. This bill is an extreme and unwise measure.”
The last time the MORE Act went to the floor, in December 2020, it passed in a 228-164 vote, with just five Republicans joining their Democratic colleagues in advancing the reform. One of those five GOP members, Rep. Don Young (R-AK), died this month. He was one of bipartisan co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.
The move to hold another vote on the cannabis legalization bill comes weeks after congressional Democrats held a closed-to-press session at a party retreat, which included a panel that largely centered on the legislation.
Advocates and stakeholders are eagerly awaiting the formal introduction of a separate Senate legalization bill.
Meanwhile, advocates and stakeholders are eagerly awaiting the formal introduction of a separate Senate legalization bill that’s being finalized by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and colleagues. Schumer recently said the plan is to file that bill—the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act (CAOA)—in April.
A separate congressional bill to tax and regulate marijuana is also in play this session. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) is sponsoring that legislation, and she said in a recent interview that she’s received assurances from Democratic leaders that her States Reform Act will receive a hearing following the MORE Act floor vote.
Meanwhile, on the same day that it was announced that the MORE Act would be heading to the floor again, the Senate unanimously approved a bipartisan bill meant to promote research into marijuana, in part by streamlining the application process for researchers who want to study the plant and to encourage the Food and Drug Administration to develop cannabis-derived medicines.