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.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) December 3, 2020
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.
I forced a vote to adjourn the House floor to highlight how many House Democrats are not even in D.C. to conduct the people's business.
Americans expect us to be working on their behalf, but Democrats have used 2020 to turn the House into a virtual show. pic.twitter.com/oDDtnKtcVJ
— Rep Andy Biggs (@RepAndyBiggsAZ) December 3, 2020
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.”
— House Committee on Rules (@RulesDemocrats) December 3, 2020
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.
Honored to preside over the House today as we considered the rule for H.R. 3884, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act to decriminalize & deschedule cannabis. As a cosponsor, I look forward to voting in support of this legislation tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/zUwvwkR2fJ
— Rep. John Yarmuth (@RepJohnYarmuth) December 3, 2020
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.
Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.
Majority Of Connecticut Residents Back Marijuana Legalization And Expungements, Poll Finds As Reform Bills Advance
As bills to legalize marijuana in Connecticut move through the legislature, a new poll finds that the reform has strong support among residents.
The survey from Sacred Heart University (SHU), released on Tuesday, found that about 66 percent of people in the state favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, while 27 percent are opposed.
If the policy change is enacted, 62 percent said those with prior marijuana convictions should have their records expunged.
Younger people and those who identify as Democrats were more likely to back ending prohibition, compared to those 65 and older or Republicans.
Further, the poll asked about perceived harms of cannabis, and 77 percent said they felt the plant carried “fewer effects” or comparable effects as alcohol. About 72 percent drew the same contrast between marijuana and other drugs such as heroin, amphetamines and prescription painkillers.
These figures are largely consistent with a previous poll that SHU conducted in February.
And like that prior survey, nearly half of Connecticut residents again expressed that they still believe that there are potential negative public safety implications of legalization, even if they support the policy. In this case, 48 percent said they agree that allowing recreational cannabis would lead to a “significant” increase in impaired driving.
Two in five respondents said they agree that marijuana is a gateway to other drugs. The poll involved interviews with 1,000 residents from March 23-31.
But while these figures largely align with the last SHU survey, one thing that has changed is that reform legislation has started to advance in the legislature, including a bill being backed by the governor.
The Judiciary Committee approved Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) proposal, which was amended to more comprehensively address social equity issues, last week. That said, legislative leaders have indicated that the bill is fluid and will likely see additional revisions down the road.
A competing legalization measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D) was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee last month.
One amendment that was adopted to the governor’s bill would provide for the free erasure of past marijuana convictions for possession or sales of up to four ounces of cannabis or six mature plants—a policy that is evidently backed by most residents in the state.
Lamont, who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, initially described his legalization plan as a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
For his part, House Speaker Matthew Ritter (D) said last month that “optimism abounds” as lawmakers work to merge proposals into a final legalization bill.
Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said “in principle, equity is important to both the administration and the legislature, and we’re going to work through those details.”
To that end, the majority leader said that working groups have been formed in the Democratic caucuses of the legislature to go through the governor’s proposal and the committee-approved reform bill.
In February, a Lamont administration official stressed during a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee that Lamont’s proposal it is “not a final bill,” and they want activists “at the table” to further inform the legislation.
The legislature has considered legalization proposals on several occasions in recent years, including a bill that Democrats introduced last year on the governor’s behalf. Those bills stalled, however.
Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address in January, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.
Ritter said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.” The governor said in an interview earlier this year that he puts the odds of his legislation passing at “60-40 percent chance.”
Should that effort fail, the speaker said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters. Lamont made similar remarks last week.
The governor has compared the need for regional coordination on marijuana policy to the coronavirus response, stating that officials have “got to think regionally when it comes to how we deal with the pandemic—and I think we have to think regionally when it comes to marijuana, as well.”
He also said that legalization in Connecticut could potentially reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting out-of-state trips to purchase legal cannabis in neighboring states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Remembering Cannabis Legalization Pioneer Steve Fox
This post is a remembrance of longtime cannabis policy activist Steve Fox from his colleagues at VS Strategies and Vicente Sederberg LLP.
Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,
We are truly heartbroken to share news of the passing of our partner and dear friend Steve Fox. Steve served as managing partner of VS Strategies since co-founding it in 2013, and he was a leader at Vicente Sederberg LLP since its formation in 2010.
We welcome the celebration of Steve’s life through the sharing of thoughts and memories, and we ask for respect and privacy for his family, friends, and coworkers who are still reeling from this loss. We have also started a GoFundMe page to support Steve’s wife and daughters as they navigate their way through this extremely difficult time—https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-the-family-of-steve-fox
With wisdom beyond his years and a pioneering spirit, Steve was an “old soul” with a knack for seeing things in a new light. He was strongly principled, deeply empathic, and fiercely kind. And despite his usually soft-spoken and lighthearted demeanor, his opinions rarely went unheard and always carried significant weight.
His passion for politics and policy were exceeded only by his passion for people—his family, friends, and colleagues, as well as the multitude of strangers that he knew were being affected every day by politics and policy. He had a burning desire and uncanny ability to envision and effect positive change, both societally and in those closest to him. He was not just a remarkable human being, but a truly transformational leader.
Steve was always the first to volunteer and the last to seek credit. He was beyond generous with his time and patience, and perpetually understanding. He relished opportunities to provide counsel and guidance, and the feeling was mutual for those who received it. He was warmly regarded as a mentor by no fewer than a dozen current and former members of our firm, including all seven of us.
Steve was one of the first political professionals to enter the marijuana advocacy space. At a time when cannabis policy was just a blip on the political radar and most savvy up-and-comers were unwilling to dip a toe into the space, Steve dove in headfirst. While many viewed it as a losing cause that wasn’t worth the fight, he saw it as a cause worth fighting until it was won. And in working to legalize and regulate cannabis for medical and adult use, he found a way to fight simultaneously for several of his core values: To promote justice and compassion, to advance freedom and liberty, and to nurture and inspire the human spirit. Humbly righteous, judiciously aggressive, and relentlessly ethical, he was committed to doing the right thing, doing it the right way, and doing whatever it takes to get it done.
When he joined the Marijuana Policy Project in 2002, Steve was the only full-time cannabis lobbyist on Capitol Hill. He would remain at the forefront of the cannabis policy reform movement for nearly two decades, playing pivotal roles in several major victories at the federal and state levels.
Steve was a lead drafter of Colorado’s historic Amendment 64, which legalized cannabis for adult use, and he managed all aspects of the successful campaign behind its passage and implementation. He also conceptualized and co-founded Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), which laid a lot of groundwork for the legalization effort and contributed to a seismic shift in the U.S. cannabis policy debate. In 2009, he co-authored the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink?,” which is based on the SAFER strategy.
Steve was always thinking step ahead of the rest. Long before cannabis was legalized, he envisioned a legal, organized, and responsible cannabis industry. He played leading roles in conceptualizing and establishing several of the nation’s largest and most influential cannabis trade organizations, including the National Cannabis Industry Association, the Cannabis Trade Federation, and the U.S. Cannabis Council. He regularly led working group meetings and calls, and he was a frequent speaker at cannabis conferences.
Steve’s role in cannabis community cannot be overstated. He was a trailblazer in the movement to end prohibition, and he was an architect and caretaker of the legal industry that is quickly replacing it. He beat the path, built the shelter, and worked tirelessly to make it as welcoming, accessible and beneficial as possible. He always put the mission—the wellbeing of others and the betterment of society—ahead of himself.
No one was more reluctant to sing their own praises while being so deserving of a louder refrain.
In 2013, Steve received a highly esteemed award from the Drug Policy Alliance in recognition of his long-term spearheading of the Colorado legalization effort. With an audience of hundreds and the spotlight squarely on him, he used the better part of his brief acceptance speech to give recognition to the people and organizations who had supported and worked alongside him. He reserved only the final thought for his own personal message and dedication. It was to his parents, for raising him to believe in the Jewish philosophy “Tikkun olam”—to “repair or heal the world” through beneficial and constructive acts. That is what drove Steve to take on the cause of cannabis policy reform. And it was what drove Steve to be the person he was.
Tikkun olam. Mission accomplished, dear friend.
And the entire VSS and VS family
Biden’s Pick To Lead DEA Voiced Openness To State Medical Marijuana Program
President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) previously described a New Jersey medical marijuana bill as “workable” while serving at the state’s attorney general.
Although the former top state prosecutor, Anne Milgram, doesn’t appear to have publicly detailed her personal views on cannabis reform, the limited comments she made over a decade ago signal that, at the very least, she’s open to allowing states to enact their own marijuana policies despite federal prohibition.
That’d be a big deal, as far as advocates are concerned. Having a DEA administrator who appears flexible with respect to state cannabis reform efforts would be a notable development given the role that the official plays in federal marijuana policy.
However, Milgram’s on-the-record remarks on the issue are admittedly minimal. In 2009, when the New Jersey legislature was considering a medical cannabis legalization bill, she called the proposal “workable,” according to a one-word quote included in an Associated Press report.
After the legislation was amended, a spokesperson for the then-attorney general said the change “tightens up the provisions…that could have become loopholes by people seeking to divert marijuana for illicit purposes.”
Biden announced Milgram as his pick to be the next DEA administrator on Monday, and now her nomination heads to the Senate. It is possible that she will be asked to elaborate on her views during a confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
Milgram’s prior statements are far from an explicit endorsement of medical cannabis legalization, but they do indicate that the nominee is not vociferously opposed to state-level reforms as has been the case for prior DEA administrators. And in combination with other Biden cabinet picks, that bodes well for advocates.
Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear during his oral and written testimony before the Senate, for example, that he does not feel the Justice Department should use its resources to go after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws. That stands in contrast with President Donald Trump’s first selection for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who rescinded Obama-era guidance deprioritizing prosecutions over state-legal cannabis activity.
The DEA, with authority delegated from the Department of Justice, plays an important role in determining the schedule status of marijuana and other drugs. If the agency’s administrator were to acknowledge the medical benefits of cannabis, it would deeply undermine its current classification in Schedule I, which is supposed to be reserved for substances with no therapeutic value.
That said, while the Justice Department and DEA play a key role in federal scheduling, a medical and scientific review by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration is binding on the attorney general’s classification decision.
To that end, the former attorney general of California, Xavier Bacerra, was confirmed by the Senate to lead HHS, and he has a considerable record supporting cannabis reform and working to protect California’s legal program from federal interference.
Meanwhile, Biden has yet to nominate someone to run the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), despite earlier reporting that a selection was imminent.
The presumed leading candidate to be White House drug czar—Rahul Gupta, the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board—has played a critical role in overseeing the implementation and expansion of a state medical marijuana program and has publicly recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform.
But while any pro-reform appointment is notable in the new administration, the DEA administrator has played a historically antagonistic role opposing federal or state policy changes as they concern cannabis. And so Milgram would stand out as an especially significant pick to that end.
The nominee would be taking over the defense to a number of pending lawsuits from marijuana and psychedelics reform advocates and patients if confirmed.
For example, Seattle doctor hoping to expand access to psilocybin mushrooms for terminally ill cancer patients is taking DEA to court over the agency’s recent denial of an application to legally use the psychedelic in end-of-life treatment.
Scientists and veterans sued the federal agency last year, arguing that the legal basis DEA has used to justify keeping marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional. They asked for a review of its decisions to reject rescheduling petitions in 2020, 2016 and 1992. DEA subsequently requested that the court dismiss that suit.
The agency has also been taken to court over delays in approving additional cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
The Scottsdale Research Institute alleged that DEA has been deliberately using delay tactics to avoid approving cultivation applications. A court mandated that the agency take steps to make good on its promise, and that suit was dropped after DEA provided a status update.
In March 2020, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party.