The Marijuana Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on December 4 by a vote of 228 to 164, has been viewed by many drug policy reform advocates as a major victory. Among other things, the bill would decriminalize marijuana possession at the federal level.
However, some advocates have expressed concern at how the MORE Act may fall short of truly supporting social equity. For example, the version passed by the House includes a clause stating that if someone has a prior felony marijuana conviction, that can be used against them during the application process to obtain a federal permit to start a cannabis enterprise.
In order to better understand the act’s promises and perils, Filter interviewed Queen Adesuyi, a policy manager with the Office of National Affairs of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA*). Adesuyi is one of the co-leaders of DPA’s Marijuana Justice Coalition, and worked on the passage of the MORE Act.
Adesuyi described the MORE Act as “not only historic but really monumental,” pointing to the bill’s racial justice framing and the positive impact it will have on people impacted by the War on Drugs. She additionally described how the bill’s decriminalization provision will benefit veterans (who will be allowed to access medical marijuana through the Department of Veterans Affairs under the bill), people who rely on federal benefits (who can currently be denied benefits due to marijuana use), and people who currently face severe immigration-related consequences for marijuana use.
But Adesuyi was also frank about what she termed the “problematic provisions” of the bill, which she said were inserted by the House Ways and Means Committee after the bill made it out of the House Judiciary Committee. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Lucia Geng: Could you talk about the significance of the MORE Act being passed by the House?
Queen Adesuyi: The MORE Act passing out of the House is not only historic but really monumental because, at minimum, we now have made it so that Congress can no longer address marijuana reform without talking about the really harmful racial disparities that came out of targeted policing and over-enforcement of marijuana laws. The House decided to address marijuana prohibition and voted to end marijuana criminalization on the federal level through this important lens, and that sets a precedent.
The initial campaigns around marijuana legalization in this country were, for the most part, race- neutral until DC. And we ended up seeing the consequences of that, for example, in Colorado’s initial years building out the legalization industry in that state. They were barring people with marijuana convictions from the industry, just flat-out. And that is a disgrace. And I think it’s reflective of what happens when you do policy work with a colorblind lens.
What parts of the bill were thrown in at the last minute? Why were they thrown in?
The bill that we built was reported out of the Judiciary Committee when the Judiciary Committee voted on this bill last November. About two weeks ahead of the [full House] vote, the Ways and Means Committee came back to the coalition and DPA with a round of revisions. There was an addition that they included that we were able to negotiate down. They wanted to include an increase on the excise tax from 5 percent to 25 percent, which would have been really devastating to small businesses. We were able to get that tax back down to 5 percent, and it’s an increasing tax, so I believe it goes up to 8 percent.
But I think one of the most painful additions, for me, was the felony exclusion language that’s in there. Despite the fact that this bill was literally from its inception intended to try to get people who have been operating in the informal market to enter the regulated market, Ways and Means decided to include a way for someone with a felony federal or state marijuana conviction to be used against on an application process for a federal permit.
That really was an optics thing—again to placate nervous and shaky moderate Dems.
This is extremely painful because it really, really cuts at the foundations of this bill and the principles that have guided the advocacy that moved this bill along. But it was something that Ways and Means was adamant about. And given the timeline in terms of when they brought it to us, and some missteps in terms of prioritization of what to negotiate on, that kind of allowed for that exclusion to still be in there with the hope that it will no longer be there in the next iteration of the MORE Act.
The [Congressional] leadership requested that some amendments [regarding expungement and sentencing] be added to help them, in their minds, secure the vote for shaky moderate Democrats.
For expungement, they ended up carving out folks who were labeled as kingpins and convicted under the kingpin statutes, really as a way to seem like they’re not trying to give a pat on the back to quote-unquote “traffickers.”
On the resentencing side, it previously was open to anyone who is currently incarcerated for a federal cannabis offense. Leadership requested that they added a qualifier, “nonviolent,” in front of “federal cannabis offense.” And that really was an optics thing—it didn’t actually change anything because federal cannabis offenses are inherently nonviolent in and of themselves—again to placate nervous and shaky moderate Dems, who are apparently concerned about the GOP putting out a billboard with the Willie Horton sentiment, where they can be accused of voting to release quote-unquote “violent offenders.”
Basically, this whole process showed us that we still have a long way to go in doing education in Congress around collateral consequences and the impact of them feeding into the dichotomy of “nonviolent” versus “violent” offenders. And in really working on moving members of Congress, in terms of their perceptions of people who sell drugs.
What would you say to someone who thinks that DPA should have maybe joined other advocacy groups (such as Minorities for Medical Marijuana) in not supporting the bill in its changed form?
I think that’s a really great question. I would say to those folks that their concerns around the problematic provisions that got added at the last minute to the MORE Act are valid. We share those same frustrations with those provisions, and also feel really, really bad about how Democrats and the political process tried to hamper our principled efforts to try to bring marijuana justice to Congress.
It was really difficult to walk away from the entire vehicle because of the longer-term implications.
As folks who led this effort, as folks who have maintained the advocacy behind moving this effort, it was really difficult to walk away from the entire vehicle because of the longer-term implications that we’re able to see, in terms of our ability to actually move anything at all.
I don’t want to minimize the impact of the problematic provisions that are in the MORE Act because they are significant. But one thing I would tell folks is that the Congressional Budget Office released a report that found that the MORE Act would generate nearly $14 billion in revenue. That’s nearly $14 billion of revenue that would go straight to community reinvestment and straight to people of color and people directly impacted by criminalization who are looking to enter the industry.
There’s some confusion about the money going to law enforcement. That is not true: The MORE Act does not give a single dollar to law enforcement. It also would cut federal prison funding by $1 billion. And it would reduce time served of currently incarcerated folks on the federal level for marijuana offenses and what would have been future incarceration. It cuts that time served by 73,000 person years. So the bill would save 73,000 human years of culminated incarceration.
Which future initiatives do you see DPA and other advocates taking on in this space?
One, we’re gonna definitely continue our legislative effort in the House. The bill passing out of the House despite all the ways that we would have wanted it to improve—that is still going to put us in a really great negotiating place and political place to work to get those provisions out and to strengthen the bill for next Congress.
We’ll be leading the effort to try to figure out what regulation can and should look like. And we also are working to try to influence the next administration to see if there’s any actions that can be taken on the executive level to address pro-marijuana prohibition, especially as we see the Senate leader of the MORE Act sitting in the position of the vice president-elect. So we’re hoping that we are successful with influencing her and the administration to move the president-elect along, because as you might know, President-elect Biden doesn’t support descheduling. At least, he hasn’t said that publicly.
Marijuana legalization is not ending the War on Drugs, and you don’t want members of Congress to get comfortable with that idea.
We’re hoping to continue to build out support for reform beyond marijuana. As you saw in the election, we successfully fought through drug decriminalization in Oregon. And there’s plenty of other states and jurisdictions that decriminalization would be viable in, and there’s also support and talk throughout Congress about the issue around drug decriminalization. It’s been so many years in the making, but we finally successfully got presidential candidates speaking about marijuana justice on debate stages, and speaking about marijuana in a way that should be extended to all substances. People should not be in jail or prison for drug use. And that’s not just the case for marijuana.
We want to have the wins we’ve had with marijuana extended because that’ll get us closer to actually dismantling the War on Drugs. Marijuana legalization is not ending the War on Drugs, and you don’t want members of Congress and other policymakers to get comfortable with that idea.
* DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.