The House Judiciary Committee held a historic vote on Wednesday, passing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act. The MORE Act is the first legalization bill to receive a Congressional markup and vote, and will now head toward the full House of Representatives.
After meandering debate over whether the Senate would take up, let alone pass, the MORE Act, the House greenlit the bill. The vote was 24 in favor, 10 against; all Democrats and two Republicans voted for the bill.
(The bill might have to pass through additional committees, though those to which it has been referred may waive their consideration.)
If signed into law, the MORE Act would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, expunge records of those with federal cannabis convictions, and provide for the communities most impacted by the enforcement of cannabis laws. States would be able to craft their own policies, which, as the bill moves forward, could be a critical aspect for lawmakers who remain unsure about cannabis legalization.
“These steps are long overdue. For far too long we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of a matter of personal choice and public health,” House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler said in his opening statement. “Whatever one’s views on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating users at the federal level is unwise and unjust.”
Wednesday’s hearing comes when 47 states have adopted some kind of cannabis law; 33 states and D.C. have legalized medical cannabis, and 11 states and D.C. now have laws allowing adult-use.
Pew Research recently released a poll that showed the highest ever support for legalization in the US at 67%. Notably, an “overwhelming majority” of American adults, or 91%, now report support for either adult or medical use cannabis.
“Federal action on this issue would follow growing recognition in the states that the status quo is unacceptable,” Nadler said.
The Chairman gave a brief history of cannabis prohibition and how it has led to “racially disparate enforcement.”
“Nationwide, the communities that have been most harmed by marijuana enforcement benefit the least in the legal marijuana marketplace,” Nadler said, adding that the MORE Act would start to fix this by creating an Opportunity Trust Fund within the Department of the Treasury that would fund programs, like training for jobs and re-entry, and within the Department of Justice and the Small Business Administration, “to empower communities of color… most adversely impacted by the war on drugs.”
The looming presidential impeachment proceedings came up several times. “It is particularly telling that we do have members, and especially for missing today, on an impeachment inquiry that is going on in the other building,” Georgia Rep. Doug Collins pointed out.
“Instead of watching that, being ready for that,” Rep. Collins said, “We’re now here dealing with, frankly, some bills that at best are conversation starters in the Senate, and at worst are simply political statements,” Collins said.
Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s remarks over the weekend that he doesn’t outright support legalization, that more research is needed, and that cannabis could be a gateway drug, continue to have a broader ripple effect. Collins said he doesn’t “necessarily agree with Joe Biden in this, but it is interesting that he does ask for more study to be done,” because legalization brings with it “interstate commerce, states’ rights and the health and safety of all Americans, particularly adolescents and young adults.”
“With all the marijuana related bills pending this Congress, including the bipartisan STATES Act, which I support, we’ve unfortunately chosen to mark up the MORE Act. I understand. But I am disappointed,” Collins said, because the MORE Act “fails to protect America’s greatest asset: Our youth and adolescents, and young adults often fall victim to advertisers and social media influencers, as we have seen in the recent outbreak of the vaping industries.”
California Rep. Tom McClintock agreed by saying that he doesn’t “approve of marijuana,” and that, “above all, it needs to be kept out of the hands of children.” McClintock said he supports most of the provisions of the MORE Act, but has concerns about building programs into a cannabis tax.
“Once we have built specific programs into the tax structure, we create powerful self-interest groups that will quickly press to increase those taxes. Once you create a money machine with an adjustable knob, that knob is more likely to be turned up than down,” he said.
McClintock added that he supports legalization “not because I support marijuana use, but because I believe our laws have done far more harm than good. It created a violent underground market which is in turn become a breeding ground for spin off crimes.”
There was repeated hand wringing about whether House lawmakers should pivot to the STATES Act, which does not include the equity and restorative justice provisions, because it has stronger bipartisan support and therefore might stand a better chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“My question is, is do we want to accomplish something or do we simply want to make a political statement? A political statement is a bill that can’t become law,” Collins said, suggesting smaller steps be taken on cannabis legislation.
Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck offered the STATES Act as an amendment to the MORE Act, only for the purposes of the discussion, but didn’t push for a recorded vote.
“I want to make sure that the committee is aware that many of us have co-sponsored the States Act. Many of us are advocating for the STATES Act,” Buck said, pointing to Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner’s loud support of the STATES Act, which could move the needle with Republican buy in.
“I think it would have a decent chance of moving if it passed the House, with a bipartisan vote and bipartisan support,” Buck said, later adding that, as a lawmaker from Colorado where they’ve seen an uptick in emergency room visits and traffic accidents, “We see things that concern me. I don’t know that there’s a simple answer for it, but it’s worth the debate.”
Nadler fired back at the notion that House lawmakers should preemptively reel back its efforts in favor of the STATES Act, because of anticipation that the Senate might either not move, or if the chamber does, it might vote against the MORE Act.
“I don’t believe in negotiating against ourselves,” Nadler said.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is something of an unlikely cannabis champion, pushed, adding that he is “not certain” that Nadler has struck the right political balance with the MORE Act.
“When we have legislation like that that is before us, we divide the coalition rather than uniting it, because rather than have legislation like the STATES Act that can invite people from all corners of the marijuana reform movement for support and assistance, we now cleave off the Libertarian-leaning, Conservative-leaning, pro-states’ rights elements of our movement. And that is going to doom us in the United States Senate,” Gaetz said, calling for a discussion on STATES.
Nadler said that Gaetz now has former California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s “job of educating your colleagues. So the vote of the Republican caucus will reflect on you.”
Gaetz responded that he hopes he fares better than Rohrabacher did in the last election (Rohrabacher lost).
The racial disparities in cannabis arrests came up several times. New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said that because of failed cannabis policies “New York City became the marijuana arrest capital of the world.”
“It’s very important for the federal government to send a different message, as it relates to marijuana,” Jeffries said.
Florida Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell agreed, saying that “we have a tale of two Americas.”
“On the one hand, we have a wealthy white business America that dominates the medical cannabis, especially in Florida. We have found that to be true. But on the other hand, black and brown citizens of my community are suffering the consequences of these one-sided laws,” Mucarsel-Powell said.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal said legalization in her home state of Washington, one of the first two states to take on the national experiment in 2012, has been a “huge success,” but the federal prohibition on cannabis has created barriers for her state’s cannabis business owners.
“We need the MORE Act because, despite our overwhelming success, licensed cannabis retailers do not have access to the banking industry and are thus unable to accept credit cards, deposit revenue into a bank account, or write checks,” Jayapal said. “It creates a burden, particularly for small businesses, and it means that legitimate licensed businesses are essentially acting as cash-only businesses. That is a major public safety risk and it creates a very weird, perverse opportunity for money laundering, tax evasion, and other white collar crimes.”
Jayapal also said lawmakers now must take the step to undo some of the “devastating impacts of the war on drugs, particularly for young people of color.”
Rep. Lucy McBath said she spoke from the “heart of a mother,” referencing her son, Jordan. McBath highlighted how teenagers and young adults lose scholarships and other higher education opportunities if they have a cannabis conviction.
“Marijuana use can profoundly change the course of their young adult life and the lives of their loved ones. All for a non-violent act. The MORE Act restores some justice to our criminal justice system,” McBath said.
At one point, Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert suggested that lawmakers hear from experts on cannabis.
“The fact that we get it de-scheduled doesn’t need any great experts. And even if you were the son of a deputy sheriff, you know that’s horse manure,” Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen said.