On September 30 a key House committee approved a bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity.
The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act cleared the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by the legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), on a 26-15 vote. The tally fell largely along party lines, with all Democrats supporting the measure and all but two Republicans voting against it.
The development comes one week after the full House voted in favor of a defense spending bill that includes an amendment to protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
“This long overdue and historic legislation would reverse failed federal policies criminalizing marijuana. It would also take steps to address the heavy toll this policy has taken across the country, particularly among communities of color,” Nadler said in opening remarks. “I have long believed that the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake. The racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws has only made it worse, with serious consequences, particularly for communities of color.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said that “this is an important criminal justice reform bill, and I commend the chairman for once again introducing this bill and bringing it before the committee. In fact, it consolidates the discussions that we’ve had about the overincarceration of individuals who were addicted or caught up in the cycle of drugs, many of them people of color in inner city neighborhoods.”
Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-OH) voiced opposition to the proposal, calling it a “radical, out-of-touch Democrat priority” and a “marijuana stimulus bill.”
The chairman said that if his son were Black, police “would have arrested him.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) discussed how cannabis criminalization has been used to target communities of color. He said the time for legalization “has come, and … came a long time ago.”
Nadler also emphasized the racial disparities in marijuana enforcement by pointing out that his own son was caught selling cannabis in high school but was brought back to his home rather than incarcerated. The chairman said if his son were Black, police “would have arrested him.”
Although most Republicans who spoke argued against the bill, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is a co-sponsor, made the case for reform.
“I am a proud co-sponsor of the MORE Act because the federal government has screwed up marijuana policy in this country for a generation,” he said. “We lied to people about the effects of marijuana. And then we used marijuana as a cudgel to incarcerate just wide swaths of communities, and particularly in African-American communities.”
“We cannot honestly say that the War on Drugs impacted suburban white communities in the same way it affected urban Black communities. We can’t say that marijuana enforcement was happening the same way on the corner than it was happening in the fraternity house,” he said. “We have an opportunity to fix that problem. The War on Drugs, much like many of our forever wars, has been a failure. If there’s been a War on Drugs, drugs have won that war.”
However, he expressed certain concerns about provisions of the legislation such as the proposed federal excise tax on cannabis sales. While Gaetz also said that while he supports the MORE Act, he doesn’t feel it stands a chance in the Senate and recommended advancing more modest reform.
Revisions and Opposition
While the legislation has largely stayed intact compared to the prior version that passed the chamber last year in a historic vote, there were some modest revisions that were incorporated upon its reintroduction in May.
The September 30 panel considered additional changes before moving the measure forward, although much of the time was spent debating other issues such as COVID-19 vaccines, abortion policy and protests against police violence.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) sought to remove the bill’s tax provisions, as well as grant funds it would create to help repair the harms of the War on Drugs.
A libertarian-leaning lawmaker, Massie backs the general idea of ending cannabis prohibition but is not in favor of creating new government programs.
“If you want a bill that is not politically paralyzed, if you want a bill that can reach across the aisle, if you want a bill that can pass the Senate—that they’ll be motivated to bring up in the Senate—then please vote for my amendment, which leaves most of the bill intact.” Massie said. “Let’s work across the aisle and let’s get a serious bill to the floor.”
The amendment was ruled out of order by the chairman, however, because it proposed changes to sections of the bill that are under the jurisdiction of other committees.
A proposed amendment from Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI) would have prohibited people with convictions for rioting, looting or destruction of property from benefiting from justice-related grants established under the bill. It was defeated in a 19-15 vote.
Rep. Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) filed an amendment that would have similarly restricted grant funds from going to people who have been convicted of trafficking drugs while possessing firearms. It failed by a vote of 20-15. Fitzgerald also put forth a proposal aimed at blocking people who have cheated on their taxes from benefitting from the grant programs. That too was rejected, by a 20-16 tally.
An amendment from Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC) would have made it so the awarding of marijuana revenue-funded grants could not “discriminate against or otherwise disfavor an individual or entity on the basis of the COVID-19 vaccination status of an individual or the advocacy by an individual or entity with respect to any COVID-19 vaccination mandate.” It was defeated in a 21-18 vote.
Bishop also filed an amendment to require the Department of Transportation to develop best practices for detecting marijuana-impaired driving, but it was deemed to be not in order because it falls under the jurisdiction of another committee.
The Bill’s Prospects
Nadler’s cannabis legislation passed the House last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control. This time around, advocates are optimistic that something like the chairman’s bill could be enacted now that Democrats run both chambers and the White House, and as more states are moving to enact legalization.
The legislation would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), allow people with cannabis convictions to have their records expunged and create a federal tax on marijuana, with the revenue going to support community reinvestment and other programs.
It also contains language to create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for cannabis offenses, protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over marijuana and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearance due to its use.
“This is the most comprehensive piece of cannabis legislation Congress has ever seen, and continuing its momentum couldn’t be more important.”
Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), who cochair the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, released a joint statement calling the Judiciary Committee vote part of a “monumental effort to get the federal government in step with the rest of America, and [a] move toward modernizing our federal cannabis policies and realizing restorative justice.”
“This is the most comprehensive piece of cannabis legislation Congress has ever seen, and continuing its momentum couldn’t be more important to our fight to address the fact that Congress continues to lag behind 37 states that have legalized either adult-use or medical cannabis,” they said. “We will continue to build a broad coalition of support in Congress and work closely with our allies in the Senate to put forth a successful framework to finally reform our outdated, out-of-touch cannabis laws, because it’s time for Congress to catch up with the American people.”
Advocates’ Support and Reservations
The ACLU and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—which includes the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Organization for Women, People for the American Way, the National Urban League, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the AFSCME and AFL-CIO labor unions—wrote a letter of support for the legislation ahead of the markup.
The groups said the MORE Act “addresses the collateral consequences of federal marijuana criminalization and takes steps to ensure the legal marketplace is diverse and inclusive of individuals adversely affected by prohibition.” It also “takes significant steps to right the wrongs of decades of federal marijuana criminalization by providing for the expungement and resentencing of marijuana offenses.”
But while advocates have broadly embraced the legislation and urged its passage, some have raised concerns about certain provisions and hope the bill can be revised as it moves through the process.
The ACLU and the Leadership Conference, for example, expressed concerns about a component that was added to render so-called drug “kingpins” ineligible for expungements, pointing out that such language “has been interpreted broadly by courts and would prevent individuals who are not high-level participants from seeking relief under the bill’s expungement and resentencing provisions.”
“We believe the bill should be amended to ensure that those with excluded convictions are eligible for expungement within five years.”
“If the exclusion remains, individuals excluded from the expungement process will continue to be blocked from accessing employment, housing, and an education based on their prior convictions,” they said. “We believe the bill should be amended to ensure that those with excluded convictions are eligible for expungement within five years, assuming there have been no new convictions in the intervening time. Such a change will stay true to the intent of the bill and provide relief to those caught up in outdated enforcement efforts.”
Meanwhile, there’s been some contention between advocates and stakeholders on which reform should come first: the bipartisan banking legislation that’s cleared the House in some form five times now, or the comprehensive legalization bill that passed the chamber for the first time late last year.
Legalization advocates do want to see legislation from Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) enacted, as there are public safety problems caused by all-cash businesses and it would take an important step toward normalizing the growing industry. But social equity-minded activists argue that advancing the incremental reform first would mainly benefit large marijuana businesses without addressing the harms of cannabis criminalization.
Potential Next Steps in Congress
The fate of the banking proposal will likely be decided in conference with the Senate, which has not included the policy change in its National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and where key lawmakers have insisted that they will push for broader reform before allowing the incremental change to be enacted.
Separately, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (R-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are also leading the charge on a legalization bill in their chamber. But weeks after a public comment period on a draft version of the proposal closed, finalized text has yet to be formally filed—and it’s far from certain that Schumer will be able to find enough votes to advance the comprehensive reform through his chamber.
It should be noted that President Joe Biden remains firmly opposed to adult-use marijuana legalization. While he supports more modest reforms such as decriminalizing cannabis, expunging prior records and letting states set their own marijuana policies, there’s an open question about whether he would be moved to sign a broad bill like the MORE Act or the Senate legalization legislation should such a proposal reach his desk.
With respect to the MORE Act, the latest version does not include language that was added just before last year’s House floor vote that would have prevented people with previous cannabis convictions from obtaining federal permits to operate marijuana businesses. That was a contentious provision that appeared at the last minute and which advocates strongly opposed.
And whereas the the prior version of the legislation contained language to help economically disadvantaged people enter the legal marijuana market, that language was revised to extend Small Business Administration (SBA) aid—such as loans, financial literacy programs and job training—to help people who have been harmed by the war on drugs pursue business opportunities in any industry, not just cannabis.
“Never before has public support been so aligned as to demand that Congress take action to end the shameful experiment with marijuana prohibition.”
Advocates are encouraged by the new revisions to the bill, but there are still additional components they hope to see changed as it goes through the legislative process. For example, they also took issue with provisions added to the MORE Act prior to last year’s vote that would have stipulated that cannabis can still be included in drug testing programs for federal workers.
The current version of the MORE Act has 76 cosponsors. In addition to the Judiciary Committee, it has been referred to eight other panels. While last Congress’s version of the bill went straight to the floor after clearing its first stop because other committees waived their jurisdiction, it’s not clear if that will happen again this time.
NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said a floor vote should be scheduled immediately.
“Never before has public support from every corner of the political spectrum been so aligned as to demand that Congress take action to end the shameful experiment with marijuana prohibition,” he said. “The continued criminalization of marijuana by the federal government is an affront to our professed ideals of freedom, liberty and justice. By advancing the MORE Act, the House will demonstrate that the majority of our political leaders are ready to correct this injustice and enact cannabis policy reform that undoes the harms that have been inflicted upon millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens.”
Separately, a proposal to federally deschedule marijuana that does not include social equity components was filed by a pair of Republican congressmen in May.