A first in the history of the United States, the House of Representatives has approved a bill that would decriminalize and tax marijuana at the federal level. The bill was supported by a Democratic-led House, deemed a step towards addressing the racial disparities present in the process of enforcing federal drug laws, particularly in the recent War on Drugs.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 (MORE Act) was written with the intention to decriminalize and deschedule cannabis. This implies that through this bill, marijuana shall be removed from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act, wherein criminal penalties for individuals involved in the manufacturing, distribution, and possession of marijuana are eliminated. Additionally, the MORE Act is looking to provide for reinvestment in certain individuals who have suffered the injustices of the War on drugs, including providing for the expungement or the removal of certain cannabis offenses based on review hearings of federal cannabis convictions, among others.
As further stated in the H.R. 3884 – MORE Act of 2019, the bill will also make several other changes to ensure the proper installment of the bill once it is approved to be a law. The alterations made include using ‘cannabis’ as the formal statutory reference to ‘marijuana’ and ‘marihuana’ and making the loans and services offered by the Small Business Administration available to different entities that are legitimate businesses and service providers related to cannabis products. Moreover, a 5% tax is to be applied on cannabis products wherein revenues are to be deposited into a trust fund established to support and invest in different programs and services, such as legal aid, job training, and substance abuse treatment to aid individuals and businesses in various communities that have been severely impacted by the War on Drugs. The funds shall also be used to help small businesses and economically disadvantaged individuals to gain access to marijuana licensing and employment. Some alterations also include the prohibition of the denial of federal public benefits and the denial of benefits and protections under immigration laws to individuals based on certain cannabis-related conduct or convictions. The bill shall also be working on establishing a process that includes sentencing review hearings to acquit and expunge convictions related to federal cannabis offenses. Furthermore, several studies shall also be initiated, wherein the Government Accountability Office will be responsible for studying the societal impact of cannabis legalization, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics will be required to regularly publish demographic data on business owners and employees involved in cannabis-related products.
The bill was approved by the House of Representatives on December 4, 2020, receiving 228-164 votes, passed largely along party lines. It was noted that 222 Democrats, five Republicans, and Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian, have voted in support of the bill, whereas 158 Republicans and six Democrats have voted against it. It is said that despite being approved in the Democratic-led House, the bill is unlikely to be supported in the Republican-controlled Senate, as was the case last year, in a bill related to giving pot business to traditional banking services.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida – the bill’s co-sponsor, along with Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, Rep. Denver Riggleman of Virginia, Rep. Don Young of Alaska, and Rep. Tom McClintock of California are the five Republicans who voted in support for the bill. On the other hand, the six Democrats who voted against the bill were Rep. Cheri Bustos and Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, and Rep, Henry Cuellar of Texas.
Many of the House Republicans and Senate Republicans have been criticizing the bill with the notion that there are currently more pressing issues that need to be addressed by the government, specifically the COVID-19 pandemic. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed his standpoint, saying that the House should have focused on passing parts of the COVID-19 stimulus bill – serious and important legislation befitting the current national crisis, which happens to be supported by both parties, rather than moving on the bill that decriminalizes marijuana.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, also drew attention to the fact that GOP lawmakers have been consistently urging to bring up a bill involving another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans to aid small businesses that are struggling due to the economic effects of the pandemic; however, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, has said on the house floor, it seems that despite all the challenges that America is currently facing, Democrats have put their focus on cats and cannabis, instead of partnering with the Republicans to provide funds for the COVID-19 Relief to go forward in addressing the pandemic and the needs of the workers. House Minority Leader McCarthy also said at a news conference in the Capitol on December 3, 2020, that Democrats seemed to have not gotten the memo that their humiliating defeat in the ballot box this year reflects the American citizens’ demand to see appropriate actions on issues that matter to them, implying that the government should focus on COVID19- Relief efforts.
President and Co-Founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Kevin Sabet, also criticized the bill and called attention to the lack of potential traction in the Senate. He states that the legislation is an unserious bill that was approved in an unserious manner. He further states that the opposition remains calm, knowing that the Senate has no interest in moving the bill nor supporting it.
Other critics of the bill noted that legalizing weed might produce a domino effect to decriminalizing other recreational drugs. Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., argues that cannabis remains one of the most abused substances. Despite the fact that decriminalizing the drug would create revenue from taxes, he believes that this is a huge misstep, knowing that marijuana is a gateway drug and might lead to more dangerous drug use.
Although confronted with several criticisms, democrats remained hopeful with the passing of the bill on decriminalization of marijuana. The democratic party asserted that they are able to work on both the COVID-19 relief efforts and the marijuana reform at the same time. They further noted that the democrats are not to be blamed for the lack of progress in the bills passed for COVID-19 relief efforts as those have languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The decriminalization of marijuana at the federal level is considered a step towards addressing the legacy of racial and ethnic injustices present in the enforcement of federal drug laws that are also particularly compounded by the disproportionate collateral consequences of 80 years of cannabis prohibition enforcement. Supporters also note that the removal of cannabis from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act, and through granting States the authorization to set their own rules involving marijuana, allow the bill to aid in the discontinuation of the War on Drugs that has been present in the nation for too long.
The House bill was introduced by Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler in July of 2019, along with California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, who also made a statement on July 23, 2019, stating that the government should start regulating cannabis, as well as expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of American citizens, to allow them a chance to live their lives. Both Judiciary Chair Nadler and Sen. Harris asserted that people of color are more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana-related crimes. In line with this, Judiciary Chair Nadler claimed that it is high time to correct this racially motivated legislation involving marijuana. “Their vote, access to education, employment, and housing are all negatively impacted,” Judiciary Chair Nadler said. He further stated that we need to work on marijuana’s current views on marijuana and deem it an issue of personal choice and public health instead of looking at it as criminal behavior.
Director of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, Maritza Perez, advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana. She stated that the criminalization of marijuana had become a cornerstone of the racist war on drugs. Despite the decade-long reform victories, a large number of individuals are still arrested nearly every minute due to the possession of cannabis. Director Perez further said that with the passing of the bill at the House level, a powerful step had been taken regarding addressing the shameful legacy of criminalization of cannabis.
Maryland Democrat, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer also gave justification as to why the party has voted to pass the MORE Act. He said in a statement following the voting for the bill that millions of Americans have had their lives put on hold only due to possession of small amounts of marijuana. However, this occurrence is said to have developed racial disparities in conviction rates, demonstrating the injustice in the enforcement of drug laws.
President-elect Joe Biden expressed his support in decriminalizing marijuana; however, a Biden campaign spokesman said in 2019 that the President-elect does not support the substance’s full legalization. As such, the Biden would continue to authorize States in making their respective decisions with regards to the legalization of cannabis, as were done under the previous administration of both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump. In line with the changes in decriminalizing marijuana, President-elect Biden would like to provide additional aid in researching cannabis’s health impacts.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are currently 15 states in the nation that legalized the recreational use of cannabis and 36 states that authorized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. In the coming years, more and more states are looking into the decriminalization of cannabis, including Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, and Pennsylvania.