On Friday April 1, the House of Representatives again voted to pass legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act seeks not only to decriminalize cannabis and remove it from the Controlled Substances Act, but also remove criminal penalties for some cannabis-related offenses. The vote was 220-204 in favor of the MORE Act's passage, with three Republicans - Tom McClintock of California and Brian Mast and Matt Gaetz of Florida - joining nearly all Democratic Representatives in saying yes.
What Is the MORE Act?
The MORE Act federally decriminalizes cannabis, establishes a five year taxation structure on federally regulated cannabis that will steadily increase from five to eight percent to be allocated to a trust fund for individuals ravaged by the war on drugs, and expunges, seals, and re-sentences any federal cannabis convictions on a case-by-case basis. Under the bill, people incarcerated on cannabis charges for fewer than 30 grams will be released from prison, and expungement of criminal records will be allowed for those who manufacture, distribute and possess cannabis.
Through these measures, the MORE Act aims to end the state/federal conflict over cannabis policies. It will also allow states greater authority to regulate cannabis-related retail sales and other activities in the industry.
The MORE Act's Second Time Around
This is the second time the House of Representatives has passed the MORE Act. Originally introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler in 2019, with a coalition including New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries and Texas Representative/Judiciary Crime Subcommittee Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee, it passed its initial review and was approved by the House on December 4, 2020 by a margin of 228 to 164. However, under the leadership of then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate did not consider the legislation before the close of the 116th Congressional session. At the time, cannabis industry leaders and advocates also criticized the bill for failing to include proper social equity provisions.
In 2021, Nadler and Jackson Lee reintroduced the bill to the House Judiciary Committee, along with Cannabis Caucus co-chairs Earl Blumenauer and Barbara Lee, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, and Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez. The revised iteration passed 26-15 in the Judiciary Committee, with twenty-four Democrats and two Republicans voting yes while fifteen Republicans voted no.
The full House vote this week notably passed by a slimmer margin than in 2020, which could be due to new social equity clauses in the bill or to its other amendments. Two amendments in the new MORE Act authorize $10 million for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to study technologies for law enforcement officials to use in determining whether a driver is impaired by marijuana, as well as commission a federal study on the impact of cannabis legalization in the workplace.
"More than anything else, the MORE Act is about ending and reversing decades of failed federal policy that has taken a heavy toll on too many people across this country, with a disproportionate impact on communities of color," Nadler said in a statement to ABC News following the bill's passage.
The updated version of the MORE Act features several restorative justice conditions:
· Facilitating the expungement of people convicted for low-level federal cannabis-related charges
· Creating pathways for ownership opportunities in the legal cannabis industry as well as other sectors for local entrepreneurs and those from communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs through Small Business Administration grant eligibility
· Allowing veterans, for the first time in history, to obtain medical cannabis recommendations from their VA doctors
· Removing the threat of deportation for immigrants who are either gainfully employed in state-legal cannabis industries or who are accused of minor cannabis-related infractions
· Providing critical reinvestment grant opportunities for communities that have suffered disproportionately from the War on Drugs; creating a Cannabis Justice Office to establish and carry out a Community Reinvestment Grant Program. The program will provide legal aid in civil and criminal cases, job training and health education programs, among other community initiatives.
Can The MORE Act Pass the Senate?
It's unsure whether the MORE Act stands a chance of passing in the Senate, even while Democrats have a tenuous control. All Democrats and at least 10 Republicans will need to vote in favor of the bill.
At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is working on a separate bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), that he introduced in July 2021 with Senators Ron Wyden and Cory Booker. The CAOA is set to be up for consideration later this month.
Cannabis Industry Leaders React to the MORE Act
Many cannabis industry leaders are energized by the MORE Act's passage the second time around, though the timing was surprising. Several wondered if it was just an April Fool's joke. Others are still questioning if the bill is putting forth enough effort for social equity in its revised form.
Dasheeda Dawson, Founding Chair of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition (CRCC) and Cannabis Program Manager for the City of Portland, had criticized the original bill for excluding people charged with cannabis felonies from receiving federal licensing and a number of other elements that she believed made it harmful to BIPOC communities and small businesses.
On the latest iteration, Dawson stated: "Today, the MORE Act passed for the second time, but we have more work than ever up ahead. Compared to its first historic passage in 2020, today's margin of victory decreased, which forewarns of challenges in the Senate. More concerning, the remarks from the bill's opposition, including representatives from mature legal states such as Oregon, focused heavily on stereotypical exaggerations of the illicit market as a cartel-led sinister entity. As part of a workgroup focused on federal legalization, CRCC has been vocal about the regulatory challenges at the state and local level, specifically addressing the negative community impact of law enforcement's use of cannabis criminalization as a tool for oppressive, racially-biased over-policing. To that end, the MORE Act is aligned with our Principles of Governance and Policy, specifically in ending criminal penalties for the possession and use of cannabis. Public policies need to reflect that cannabis is an effective option for a variety of health conditions. Protecting consumers from prosecution is the first place to start. While essential, it alone cannot address decades of discriminatory enforcement and propaganda referenced on the floor of Congress today. Ending the war on drugs also means adopting progressive and noncriminal regulatory strategies rather than relying on law enforcement. It’s clear that, re-educating federal legislators and agencies will be critical to the country's comprehensive reform. Until they understand the plant’s value and benefits, federal legalization will be a difficult hurdle."
Dr. Rachel Knox, Chair of the Association for Cannabis Health Equity and Medicine (ACHEM), had also been opposed to the MORE Act's first incarnation, calling it "the antithesis of equity." She also criticized the power the bill purported to give to the federal government over control of the market, creating an environment she considered unhealthy for entrepreneurs, patients, and the overall industry.
Considering the updated bill, Knox commented, "“The MORE Act passes the house again, proving Congressional interest and a political will for comprehensive cannabis policy reform in the United States. The Association for Cannabis Health Equity and Medicine (ACHEM) acknowledges this precedent but must recognize that cannabis is always medicinal, and often missing from federal cannabis legislation is mention of rights and protections for patients and healthcare providers, and the institutional reform necessary to prepare students and professionals in medical fields to care for people who consume cannabis, and to protect patients and consumers from ongoing discrimination for their use. Not only this, but holistic and rational legislation must be impactful and centered in health equity–ensuring that all aspects of legalization and regulation improve access to wellbeing in the communities most negatively impacted by prohibition. Because the MORE Act is silent on these issues, ACHEM looks forward to engaging with Congressional leadership with key recommendations that promote patient protection, professional proficiency, institutional competency and reform, and broader efforts to achieve health equity.”
Are you in favor of the MORE Act? Let us know! And if you want to encourage your senators to pass the bill, find out how to contact them here.