On Tuesday morning, on the eve of yet another historic House vote on cannabis legislation, a handful of House lawmakers held a news conference in Washington, D.C. to drum up support for the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) of 2019.
Wednesday’s vote will be the first ever in Congress on a cannabis legalization bill. If passed, the MORE Act would federally decriminalize cannabis by descheduling it from the Controlled Substances Act. States would be able to craft their own policies, which could be an important aspect of the bill for some lawmakers who remain on the fence about, or opposed to, cannabis law reform.
“States will have the ability to regulate marijuana use and even to maintain criminal prohibitions if they choose to do so,” New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said during the conference.
California Rep. Barbara Lee, a longtime supporter of cannabis law reform and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, thanked Nadler for “including the provisions that legalize marijuana at the federal level that provides for comprehensive restorative justice.”
Lee added that, “These provisions ensure that we repair—and that’s extremely important—that we repair the harm that communities of color have endured since the failed and racist…war on drugs. Communities of color have been left behind on the cannabis reform train,” Lee said. Currently, just one-fifth of the cannabis industry is owned or operated by a person of color, Lee emphasized, saying “this is going to change.”
Lee also said there were “tough negotiations” that led to the House Judiciary Committee’s markup and vote on the MORE Act, hinting at a tinge of disappointment amid the progress.
“We all know there were some tough negotiations that took place. And sometimes, you know, the whole issue of loyalty and commitment to one’s word somehow, sometimes doesn’t seem to evolve the way we discussed it,” Lee said.
While cannabis remains a Schedule I substance at the federal level, and therefore prohibited, statewide reform continues. All but three states now allow some form of medical cannabis, with 11 states and Washington, D.C. allowing adult-use cannabis. Efforts to pass federal cannabis law reform are also picking up steam, with September’s historic House vote in favor of the SAFE Banking Act, which will open up access to financial services for the cannabis industry, and other federal cannabis bills gaining more Democrat and Republican sponsors. Meanwhile, lobbying at the federal level is higher than it’s ever been, signaling interest in reform not only from the cannabis industry, but also from others, like tobacco and alcohol, and even from organizations that focus on everything from real estate to insurance. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of cannabis legislation and lobbying in Congress.)
“We’ve seen more progress in the last 14 months than we’ve seen in the last 40 years,” said Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, one of Congress’ most vocal supporters of cannabis law reform and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.
“We shouldn’t settle any longer for incremental change. Those individual pieces of legislation had a role to play. They were important. But we must commit to the restorative justice that’s in this, open up economic opportunities for people of color, who in millions of cases over the decades have borne the brunt of unequal application of our nonsensical cannabis problems,” Blumenauer said.
Rep. Nydia Velázquez pointed to local and state cannabis law reform, saying, “Yes, elections matter. And we are showing that today.”
One aspect of the MORE Act is that it would create the Cannabis Opportunity Grant Program, which would allocate funds for loans designed to help small cannabis businesses owned and controlled by people from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Lawmakers are also proposing that grant funding goes to state and local governments so that they can help small businesses navigate cannabis licensing and employment, Velázquez said.
“I believe that if you are starting a small cannabis business, you should be able to get a loan. More than that, you should be able to turn to the Small Business Administration, which provides low cost, low interest loans to borrowers that, traditionally, traditional lenders may deem too risky,” Velázquez said.
Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen thanked former New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey and former California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, for their previous work on cannabis law reform.
“This bill would remove the stain that is put on people’s records,” Cohen said, adding that, “The truth is, the stain which would be removed from these people’s records through expungement is really a stain on the United States government, a stain that’s over 82 years old.” (The MORE Act would require federal courts to expunge previous cannabis convictions. Those with prior convictions could request that their records be expunged.)
Cohen referenced what Schedule I substances are in the eyes of the federal government: deemed to have a high risk for abuse, and no known medical value. Cohen called this notion “false.”
“We’ve seen the medical benefit. Veterans tell us about how it helps them with PTSD. Others, with cancer. And I’ve seen it with friends who’ve had chemotherapy and it helps them deal with chemotherapy and it gives them an appetite and it gives them a mindset to where they can even laugh when they’re facing death and going through great pain,” he said.
Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal spoke from the perspective of one of the first two states to legalize back in 2012, “with very broad support, including law enforcement and children’s advocates.”
Jayapal added that cannabis law reform is no longer a “red or a blue issue.”
“A ‘yes’ vote on this bill is a ‘yes’ to doing the right thing. It is a ‘yes’ to making amends, to repairing… the harm that has been done by government policies to people across the country,” Jayapal said.
Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, and Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, also spoke at the end of the news conference.
McFarland Sanchez-Moreno talked about the costs of cannabis prohibition to human life.
“Prohibition has served as an excuse for heavy handed policing, for policies like stop and frisk in New York. The seizure of private property with little to no process, large scale deportations and incarceration. Even today, more than 650,000 people are arrested every year for marijuana offenses,” she said, disproportionately affecting black and brown communities. And once someone has that conviction, barriers to things like jobs and student loans crop up.
The MORE Act would fix this by blocking the denial of any public benefits, like public housing subsidies, because of a cannabis conviction, and would stop cannabis convictions from having an effect on immigration status. It would also require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to collect cannabis industry demographic data to better understand the backgrounds of who, exactly, is part of the cannabis industry.
The MORE Act would also, through a 5% sales tax, create an Opportunity Trust Fund to build three separate grant programs, including the Community Reinvestment Grant Program, aimed at providing job training, legal help, and other educational programs for communities disproportionately affected by cannabis law enforcement.
Franklin, a retired major from the Maryland State Police, spoke about what he believed to be the law enforcement perspective on cannabis.
The MORE Act is “a great opportunity to end the confusion between federal, state and local laws. Because right now, as long as it is illegal on the federal level, unfortunately, most law enforcement folks will follow the lead of our federal government. Even though they believe something different. Even though the many, many who were out on the streets every day want this to end,” Franklin said.
Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee markup and vote will be the start of a long process of debate. The lawmakers at Tuesday’s press conference expressed confidence that the MORE Act will pass out of committee and head for a full House vote.
“Our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past, and it’s long past time to change that,” Lee said.