The United States House of Representatives just approved a bill that would end federal marijuana prohibition, marking the first time a full chamber of Congress has approved marijuana legalization. However, the measure still has a big hill to climb in the U.S. Senate.
New York Representative Jerry Nadler's Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, better known as the MORE Act, would end federal marijuana prohibition by removing the plant from the Controlled Substances Act. The measure, approved 228-164 on December 4, proposes allowing states to regulate the plant as they see fit, and would set up funding and programs that allow expungement for cannabis offenders and call for social equity in any potential federally legal pot industry.
According to a congressional summary of the bill, the MORE Act would impose a 5 percent federal tax on marijuana that would be used to establish a trust fund intended to support programs benefiting communities impacted by the War on Drugs, as well as issue small business loans to cannabis business owners. The bill would also do the following: require that the Bureau of Labor Statistics regularly publish demographic data on cannabis business owners and employees; guarantee protection for prior marijuana offenders from losing federal benefits or immigration status; and establish an expungement process for prior pot convictions.
A similar version of the bill passed a House committee in 2019 but never received a vote on the House floor. The 2020 attempt made it out of the House Rules Committee on December 2, then hit the full floor this morning.
Colorado representatives Ed Perlmutter, Diana DeGette, Joe Neguse and Jason Crowe, all Democrats, co-sponsored the bill; Perlmutter has been a champion of marijuana banking rights over the past half-decade.
“I’m glad to see the MORE Act get a vote in the House this week. This comprehensive legislation will help modernize our federal cannabis policies to ensure fairness, equity and inclusion,” Perlmutter said in a statement to Westword before voting yes on the bill. "Reforming federal cannabis law is long overdue, and it is why I continue to push for the passage of the SAFE Banking Act and broader reforms in Congress."
DeGette also issued a statement in support of marijuana legalization and the MORE Act, saying that the federal government's current stance on the plant is "threatening this budding industry" and that Colorado marijuana businesses should be "treated just as any other business owner in our state — without the constant threat of federal intervention.”
Republican representatives Ken Buck, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton (who will be giving up his seat to Republican Lauren Boebert in 2021), all known opponents of legalization, voted no.
Boebert and her staff declined to comment on the MORE Act, but when asked about the representative-elect's position on marijuana legalization, her staff sent a statement Boebert had made on the campaign trail.
"Now that there is Colorado law established on marijuana, I think it’s the responsibility of the state, not the federal government, to oversee it. I have been generally impressed by the amount of oversight provided by the local industry, and my inclination is to approach this from a states'-rights issue. The federal government should not overstep in this process," Boebert said. "My general concern for how this affects kids and how they are protected from potential dangers are the same concerns I share with alcohol."
Despite the history-making vote, the measure will stall if the Senate maintains its current approach toward progressive marijuana policy, which is non-existent. Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a known opponent of legalization, has refused to hear less ambitious marijuana reform measures in the recent past, including Perlmutter's Safe Banking Act, which would protect banks that serve state-legal marijuana business but stops far short of federal legalization.
The Senate's version of the MORE Act, sponsored by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, is unlikely to be heard before the end of the year.
Add the MORE Act to the long list of political issues depending on Georgia's upcoming runoff elections for two U.S. Senate seats. If both Democratic candidates win in Georgia, Republicans would lose their Senate majority. Although a slim Senate majority for Democrats doesn't guarantee that the MORE Act would be heard, much less approved, by the full Senate, it would be a major boost in odds.
"By going on the record with this vote, House members have set the stage for a much-needed legislative showdown in 2021, when we will have the Biden administration in office — one that has publicly expressed an appetite for advancing the restorative-justice remedies outlined in the MORE Act," explains Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "We are primed and ready for this legislative debate, and we expect, ultimately, to win it.”
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