The US House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act on Friday, 228-164, following an hour of debate.
The bill, if passed by the Senate and signed by the president, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, where it was placed in the strictest category fifty years ago. In other words, the Act would end the federal criminalization of cannabis. Though, the Act would not nationally legalize cannabis sales, and individual states could still decide to maintain cannabis prohibition.
The bill would also: allow for the expungement of some convictions related to past federal cannabis offenses; create a trust, funded by a tax on cannabis products, for communities impacted by the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis laws; provide Small Business Administration grants; and allow VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans.
Still, the bill’s path in the Republican-controlled Senate remains unclear. The SAFE Banking Act, for example, which would expand access for the cannabis industry to financial institutions, stalled in the Senate after it was passed in the House last year.
The COVID-19 pandemic loomed large on Friday morning, with some Republican House members highlighting the need to prioritize related legislation. Democrats argued that passage of the MORE Act is urgent because the criminalization of cannabis continues to disproportionately affect communities of color, despite similar cannabis use rates between Black and white people.
Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee emphasized cannabis arrest statistics, highlighting that between 2001 and 2010, there was a cannabis arrest every 37 seconds, resulting in eight million such arrests.
“The numbers are staggering. But most of all, the numbers are staggering with the imbalanced prosecution of African-Americans and people of Latinx heritage, Hispanic heritage. What an imbalance. What a massive infusion of incarceration across this nation,” Jackson Lee said. “We spent $3.6 billion dollars on the war on marijuana and it has not worked. We do today what saves lives.”
Florida Representative Matt Gaetz called the Act “flawed,” but spoke as the only Republican sponsor of the MORE Act, adding that he suspected that his GOP colleagues would argue against the Act. Gaetz said that he would vote in favor of the MORE Act, but pivoted to support of the STATES Act.
“I would only hope that in the 117th Congress, after this bill invariably dies in the Senate, that will actually come back and pass the STATES Act, because the STATES Act acknowledges that we have screwed this up in the federal government. And while we’ve screwed it up, states have taken action,” Gaetz said. “If we were to pass the STATES Act, then best practices would emerge.”
North Carolina Representative Dan Bishop said that the fact that the full House was debating the MORE Act was evidence of Democrats’ “misplaced priorities.” North Carolina Representative Greg Murphy added that while he’s “sympathetic” to people who use medical cannabis for cancer or chronic pain, he called cannabis a “gateway drug.”
Ohio Representative Jim Jordan also opposed the MORE Act, in part, he said, because taxpayers would foot the bill.
“It’s not enough just to legalize marijuana. They want taxpayers to pay for it,” Jordan said.
Jackson Lee responded by saying that the tax was on the cannabis consumer, not the taxpayer.
“The taxation is on those who use marijuana. It is not on the small business person,” Jackson Lee said. “I hope that we can move forward on what the American people want us to do.”
New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries pointed out that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.
“We have ruined lives, families, and communities. It’s a stain on our democracy,” Jeffries said.
“Yet in community after community after community, Blacks and Latinos make up approximately 75 to 80 percent of the arrests and prosecutions. How can that be?” Jeffries asked. “Marijuana use is either socially acceptable behavior or it’s criminal conduct, but it can’t be socially acceptable behavior in some neighborhoods and criminal conduct in other neighborhoods when the dividing line is race.”
California Representative Lou Correa pointed to veterans and their advocacy in seeking better access and research when it comes to medical cannabis for conditions like post traumatic stress disorder.
“Veterans prefer cannabis over opioids. Let me repeat: veterans prefer cannabis over opioids to treat the invisible wounds that they bring back from the battlefields,” Correa said.
Minnesota Representative Pete Stauber mocked the language of the bill that would collect diversity data. Because cannabis remains federally illegal, there are large gaps in data, and where it does exist, a state-by-state approach creates disparities.
“If you can believe this, a new annual study on diversity and inclusion within the marijuana industry. Come on, man. Families are losing their livelihood. People are hurting,” Stauber said.
Mississippi Representative Steven Palazzo said that the MORE Act needed to do more to limit potency and cannabis-related advertising, and called the bill “reckless” and negligent. He said it was not time-sensitive, and shouldn’t take priority over more serious issues facing the country. “When is it time for real Covid relief? When is it time for us to help our constituents?” Palazzo said. “There’s a lot to get done before the end of the year.”
Representative Earl Blumenauer, referencing Palazzo’s home state of Mississippi, said, “His voters just approved medical marijuana” on Election Day. “We’re not rushing to legalize marijuana. The American people have already done that. We’re here because Congress has failed to deal with a disastrous war on drugs.”
California Representative Barbara Lee emphasized that the MORE Act is about racial justice, and about working to curb racism in the criminal justice system.
“It’s time to end these unjust laws which shattered the lives of so many young people of color,” Lee said. “We have got to give our young people a second chance.”
Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard urged her House and Senate colleagues to support the MORE Act and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature.
“The bottom line is this vote is about freedom. It’s about freedom of choice for every American to make their own decisions for themselves without fear of the government coming and arresting them,” Gabbard said.