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Congress Begins Debate On Marijuana Legalization Bill, With Final Vote Expected Friday



The House on Thursday officially took the final step to advance a bill to federally legalize marijuana to a floor vote.

Members debated and passed a rule that sets the procedural standard for voting on the legislation, which is expected Friday. Lawmakers also talked more generally about the substance of the bill during Thursday’s consideration of the rule, which was approved in committee the day prior.

The House approved the rule in a 225-160 vote.

The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would fundamentally restructure the nation’s cannabis policy, removing the plant from the Controlled Substances Act and expunging the records of those with prior marijuana convictions. The descheduling provisions would be retroactive.

It passed out of the Judiciary Committee, headed by bill sponsor Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), last year. Advocates have been waiting ever since to see the historic piece of legislation move to the full chamber.

Leadership initially said a vote would be held in September, but that plan was pushed back at the request of certain centrist Democrats who worried that it would be bad optics to approve cannabis reform being passing another coronavirus relief package. But the strategic thinking there is questionable, as some of those same lawmakers ended up losing their seats on the same Election Day that voters in several conservative states approved marijuana legalization ballot measures.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) then announced that the chamber would vote on the MORE Act in December. The proposal moved out of the Rules Committee on Wednesday, and members of that panel decided on a “closed” vote rule to make it so no additional amendments will be allowed on the floor.

Watch the House debate the rule for the marijuana bill:

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a longtime leader on cannabis reform in Congress, wore a mask with marijuana leaves on it as he presided over the chamber on Thursday.

Several Republican members took hits at Democrats for choosing to bring up the marijuana legislation.

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), for example, repeatedly condemned those on the other wide of the aisle for giving attention to “cats and cannabis” during the pandemic. (The “cats” reference is to separate proposed legislation to restrict personal ownership of lions, tigers and other big cats.)

Another member, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), also criticized the marijuana reform action and then forced an unsuccessful floor vote on a motion to adjourn for the day.

These critiques have been building among GOP lawmakers since House leadership announced plans of the vote on the MORE Act. While many have lashed out on Twitter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took to the floor of his chamber to condemn the move on Thursday, mocking Democrats for “spending this week on pressing issues like marijuana.”

“You know, serious, important legislation benefiting the national crisis,” McConnell sarcastically intoned.

One House Democrat, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), echoed the GOP criticism, saying that this “isn’t the right way” to advance reform and lawmakers should instead be focused on COVID-19 relief.

On the floor, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) responded in his opening remarks on Thursday, stating that “we can walk and chew gum at the same time in this Democratically controlled House of Representatives.”

“That means we need to deal with not only passing an omnibus bill and a COVID relief bill—but we have other work that needs to be done as well,” he said. “We are here today to continue our effort to reform our nation’s failed approach to the war on drugs.”

Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) said that legalization is “a topic that has received more than its fair share of attention” this year and he sympathizes with the racial equity issues related to cannabis criminalization. However, he said that the chamber’s time is being “wasted” by moving a bill that “will not be moving anywhere,” implying that it will not advance through the GOP-controlled Senate or arrive on the president’s desk.

“Sometimes I think that the world is turned upside down,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ), who opposes the legislation despite the fact that her state legalized marijuana during last month’s election, said.

“I think to the American public—and at a time when parents are trying to get their children back into school with an in-person option because their children are falling so far behind because of the lockdowns of schools—here we are with a bill that will make it easier for these same children to get marijuana products,” she argued.

It should be noted that recent federal data shows that youth cannabis consumption has remained stable and in some states has decreased amid the state-level legalization movement.

“This is an opportunity to strike a blow against the failed war on drugs that has literally destroyed hundreds of thousands of young black lives,” Blumenauer said. “Black people use cannabis no more frequently than whites, but they are arrested about four times more” over marijuana.

“This is an historic moment,” he said. “It’s an important step towards rationalizing the policy towards racial justice…this is an opportunity for us to right this historic wrong. This is an opportunity for us to turn the page and move forward without federal interference.”

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA) said “it becomes clear by the day that the time is long overdue for the federal government to bring its marijuana policy into the 21st century” and the “current approach has failed.”

In a short speech earlier on Thursday, Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA) called on his colleagues to advance the proposal, describing it as “a jobs bill” that would promote social equity.

Ahead of Friday’s final vote on the legislation, there will be one hour of additional debate on the House floor, and that time will be “equally divided and controlled by the chair and ranking minority member” of the Judiciary Committee, according to the rule.

Before coming to the floor, the legislation was revised in a Rules Committee Print, transmitted from Nadler’s Judiciary panel, and further modified in a manager’s amendment he filed. Most of the revisions were technical in nature, though there was one significant change as it relates to the proposed tax structure for marijuana.

As now structured, the MORE Act would make it so cannabis would be federally taxed at five percent for the first two years after implementation and then increased by one percent each year until reaching eight percent. After five years, taxes would be applied to marijuana products based on weight rather than price.

The bill would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

A new Cannabis Justice Office under the Justice Department would be responsible for distributing funds providing loans for small cannabis businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The bill also seeks to minimize barriers to licensing and employment in the legal industry.

It would also establish a Community Reinvestment Grant Program. Tax dollars appropriated to that program would go to job training, legal aid for criminal and civil cases such as those concerning marijuana-related expungements, literacy programs and youth recreation and mentoring services, among other programs.

In new changes that some reform advocates take exception to, the legislation also stipulates that the heads of the Transportation Department and Coast Guard may continue to include marijuana in drug testing programs for safety-sensitive positions and clarifies that the expungement provisions only apply to “non-violent marijuana offenders” and bars so-called “kingpins” from obtaining expungements.

Advocates are optimistic about the bill’s advancement through the House, but it should be noted that its prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate this session are dim. McConnell is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.

That said, a symbolic vote for legalization could send a strong signal to the incoming presidential administration.

Given President-elect Joe Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For his part, Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service released an analysis of the MORE Act last month, finding that the bill’s passage could “reverse” the current cannabis policy gap that exists between states and the federal government.

Conservative Groups Call For Marijuana Legalization Ahead Of House Vote

Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based managing editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.


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