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House Approves Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill In Historic Vote

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The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to federally legalize marijuana in a historic vote on Friday.

It’s the day that cannabis reform advocates have been building toward for years—a full floor vote to end prohibition in a chamber of Congress.

Prior to the bill’s approval in a 228 to 164 vote, Republican lawmakers spent days criticizing their Democratic counterparts for even bringing the legislation to the floor.

While the vote was mostly along party lines, five Republicans supported the reform and six Democrats opposed it.

Under the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, cannabis would be federally descheduled and those with prior convictions would have their records expunged. The descheduling provisions would be retroactive, too.

Despite the unprecedented House victory for reformers, few believe the legislation stands a chance in the Republican-controlled Senate, at least before the end of the current Congress early next month. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead sponsor of the Senate companion version of the bill.

Ahead of the bill’s passage, debate on the floor largely consisted of Democrats making the case that the reform will help to right the wrongs of the racist war on drugs, and Republicans arguing that legalization would cause harms to children and public safety and that now is not the right time to consider the issue in any case.

Watch the House debate and vote on the MORE Act below:

“Across this nation, thousands of men and women have suffered needlessly from the federal criminalization of marijuana, particularly in communities of color and have borne the burden of collateral consequences for those ensnared in criminal legal systems that have damaged our society across generations,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said in her opening remarks. “This is unacceptable and we must change our laws. It is time for Congress to catch up with the reforms that states are enacting.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor of the legislation, said that while he feels the bill is “flawed,” he is voting for it “because the federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana for a generation.

“We have seen a generation, particularly of black and brown youth, locked up for offenses that not should have not resulted in any incarceration whatsoever,” he said.

The fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), said cannabis criminalization represents “a stain on our democracy,” emphasizing ongoing racial disparities in enforcement despite the fact that black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rates.

Congressional Cannabis Caucus Co-chair Barbara Lee (D-CA) said the MORE Act “is an important racial justice measure” and “the product of years of work by so many activists and advocates and young people—and it’s long overdue.”

“It’s time to end these unjust laws which has shattered the lives of so many young people of color,” the congresswoman, who presided over the chamber during the final vote, said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), another Cannabis Caucus co-chair and longtime marijuana reform advocate, gave an impassioned speech in support of the bill.

“We’re not rushing to legalize marijuana,” he said. “The American people have all ready done that. We’re here because Congress has failed to deal with the disastrous war on drugs and do its part for the over 50 million regular marijuana users [who live in] every one of your districts.”

“It’s time for Congress to step up and do its part,” he said. “We need to catch up with the rest of the American people.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) repeated the GOP criticism of Democratic priorities with this vote and slammed the tax provisions of the MORE Act.

“This bill—it’s not enough just to legalize marijuana. They want taxpayers to pay for it,” he said of Democrats. “This bill sets up a grant program. This is the marijuana business infrastructure bill.”

Prior to the vote on final passage, the House considered a motion to recommit—the minority party’s only tool to amend the bill—from Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) to add language clarifying that “an employer may test an employee or applicant for cannabis use to ensure workplace and public safety.” That proposal was rejected by a tally of 218 to 174, with one member voting present.

“In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic House Democrats are rushing to pass a sweeping marijuana legalization bill without considering the unintended consequences the legislation will have on workplace and public safety,” she said. The vote on the motion will occur after the vote on passage.

“Wars are costly, and the war on marijuana is no exception,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) said. “The costs of the war on marijuana have disproportionately fell on the backs of blacks and Latinos.”

Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) noted that “than half of all Americans live in a state where cannabis is legal” and said Congress should “align federal cannabis laws with the will of the people. Let’s take full advantage of the medical benefits of cannabis.”

He also thanked House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the bill’s sponsor, for including one of his proposals to require a study of the benefits of medical cannabis for veterans in an adopted manager’s amendment.

“For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health,” Nadler, who was not present for the debate, said in a written statement.

“Whatever one’s views are on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, the policy of arrests, prosecution, and incarceration at the Federal level has proven unwise and unjust,” he said.

“The bottom line is, this vote is about freedom,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) said. “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.”

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) voiced opposition to the legislation and inaccurately claimed that voters in his state “barely” approved a measure to legalize marijuana during last month’s election. In fact, it passed 60-40 percent—a point Blumenauer later clarified.

The chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), said the bill “will restore justice to our most marginalized communities and it will boost our economy.” She added that “communities of color have disproportionately suffered from the so-called war on drugs” and they “have also been locked out of traditional capital markets.”

“That is why the MORE Act is the best legislation to advance progress on this issue,” she said.

It’s been about a year since the legislation cleared the Judiciary Committee. Advocates have been pushing for a floor vote ever since, and leadership initially said that would take place in September. But certain centrist Democrats urged a delay, citing concerns about the optics of advancing the reform before passing another round of coronavirus relief.

Leadership agreed but promised a floor vote before the year’s end. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) recently announced that the action would take place this week, and the procedural rules for floor consideration were approved in committee on Wednesday. The House began preliminary debate and accepted the rule—which closed the bill to further amendments—on Thursday.

GOP lawmakers have repeatedly hit House leadership after plans of the vote on the MORE Act were announced. 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, sarcastically mocking Democrats for “spending this week on pressing issues like marijuana.”

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

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 were 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.

Still, the historic nature of a vote by a chamber of Congress to legalize marijuana is hard to overstate. While the House has on two previous occasions approved amendments to shield all state marijuana laws from federal interference (which later died in the Senate), never before has legislation to formally remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act advanced on Capitol Hill.

Legalization advocates heralded the vote as a watershed moment for the movement.

Justin Stekal, political director of NORML, said this “is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States.”

“This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance, and it marks the first time in 24 years—when California became the first state defy the federal government on the issue of marijuana prohibition—that Congress has sought to close the widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies,” he said. “By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations—arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”

Aaron Smith, chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association said that “the symbolic and historical importance of the MORE Act passing in the House cannot be overstated.”

“This vote stands as a rebuke of failed and harmful prohibition policies, and represents a growing understanding of their racially and economically disparate impacts,” he said. “Americans are increasingly ready to see cannabis legal for adults and sensibly regulated, which they showed through their representatives today and at the ballot box last month.”

Steve Fox, a strategic advisor to the Cannabis Trade Federation, said it is “a day of celebration for everyone who has worked to end cannabis prohibition over the past 25 years. All of those efforts have built toward this day.”

While celebrating the overall legislation, Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins noted that “it falls short of a perfect bill and at least one provision can hopefully be removed before final enactment.”

“An amendment inserted in the final days before today’s vote would empower the federal government to prevent Americans who have been charged with cannabis-related felonies from working in the marijuana industry,” he said. “This policy could block many of those individuals accused of prior marijuana offenses from participating in the legal market, which will inhibit our ability to create an equitable and fair marijuana industry. The fact that it might apply to people who were never even convicted of a crime makes it particularly unacceptable.”

Overall, the passage of the legalization legislation could send a strong signal to the incoming presidential administration, and it sets the stage for similar action in 2021—especially if Democrats win control of the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia next month.

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. While Harris is sponsoring the MORE Act, she’s indicated that she would not necessarily push the president-elect to adopt a pro-legalization position.

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.

Top New York Republican Lawmaker Says Marijuana Legalization Will Happen In 2021

Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

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

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New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Effort Runs Up Against New Republican Legislature

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“Eventually it will get passed. But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”

By Christian Wade | The Center Square

Marijuana advocates are continuing a push to legalize the drug for recreational use in New Hampshire, but the effort faces an unlikely path in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

A bipartisan bill filed in the state House of Representatives this month would, if approved, legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and set up a system of regulation and taxation for the drug that would allow retail sales. It’s similar to proposals filed in previous legislative sessions, all of which have failed to win approval.

“The battle continues,” said Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, D-Concord, a primary sponsor of the bill. “We keep refining it and negotiating and trying to come up with something that could potentially get to the two-thirds vote needed to override the governor’s veto.”

The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed and would authorize regulated cultivation and retail sales. Adults would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. A state-run cannabis commission would set regulations and oversee the new industry. The proposal calls for a 9% tax on recreational pot sales.

But the measure faces a steep climb in the state legislature—which swung back to the GOP in the November 3 elections—not to mention the threat of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes legalization.

McWilliams acknowledges the measure faces long odds in the biennial legislative session and said lawmakers who support the effort lack the votes to override a Sununu veto. But she said the effort is building more support with every passing year.

“Eventually it will get passed,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”

While marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, she said there’s a chance the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House could lift the federal prohibition on pot.

Nationally, 68 percent of Americans back the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll, which noted that support has been inching up steadily over the years.

To date, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs.

New Hampshire has often been described as a “cannabis island” with neighboring states and Canada allowing recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.

While the Granite State decriminalized marijuana possession in 2017, recreational growing and sales are not authorized.

In 2014, the Democrat-controlled House approved a legalization bill but it failed to pass the Senate. Similar proposals have been refiled every session, but have failed to gain traction.

The state has also allowed medical marijuana dispensaries since 2013, but cultivating the drug for personal use is still a felony.

Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would have allowed medical pot patients to grow their own supply, but Sununu vetoed it, citing public safety concerns.

This piece was first published by The Center Square.

New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal

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American Medical Association Asks Court To Overturn Medical Marijuana Vote In Mississippi

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Two medical associations are throwing their support behind a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medical marijuana ballot initiative that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved in November, arguing that it creates “risks to public health” and places a “burden” on physicians.

The American Medical Association (AMA) and its state affiliate, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), recently filed an amicus brief backing the legal challenge being considered by the state Supreme Court, which was brought by the city of Madison just days before the election.

The lawsuit argues that legalization proposal is invalid because of a state law that dictates the percentage of signatures required per district to qualify a ballot initiative.

While Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general have strongly criticized the suit, calling it “woefully untimely” and contesting the merits, AMA and MSMA are backing the challenge nonetheless.

“Making sure the constitutional amendment map is followed is always important, but given the nature of the initiative at issue and the substantial ramifications it poses for Mississippi’s public health and the medical community, particular care is warranted here,” the brief states, according to a blog post published by AMA on Friday.

The groups further argue that, outside of the statutory concerns outlined in the suit, the medical cannabis legalization initiative “poses significant risks to public health and puts a burden on Mississippi physicians.”

“While it is possible there may be beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects abound,” the brief states, adding “without question, the public health risks are immense.”

Additionally, because marijuana remains federally illegal, the voter-approved measure would put physicians in “quite the pinch,” it says. “Yet physicians will be expected by their patients (though perhaps not required by Initiative 65) to sign off on certifications to receive their supply. Perhaps no liability will lie under state law, but what about federal law?”

In fact, federal courts have ruled that doctors have a First Amendment right to discuss medical cannabis with their patients without risking federal sanction.

“As everyone knows, all it takes to file a lawsuit is a piece of paper and a filing fee, so even if a physician is judged correctly and immunity is appropriate, the matter will still have to be litigated,” the AMA and MSMA brief continues. “And with increased exposure and litigation comes increased costs, not least of which is rising professional liability insurance premiums.”

The legal challenge brought by Madison cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.

Advocates see desperation in the court filing, with the medical associations now making a last-ditch effort to overturn the will of voters.

“These are cynical attempts to undermine the democratic process,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for NORML, said. “Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box.”

“Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes,” she said. “Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”

Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said “AMA’s position is woefully out of step with both public opinion and scientific consensus, as well as with the opinions of the majority of physicians.”

“It is regrettable that this organization would go on record in attempting to nullify the vote of a supermajority of Mississippi voters,” he said.

It’s also not especially surprising that these particular groups would join in this legal challenge given their earlier attempts to get voters to reject the reform initiative.

Weeks before the vote, AMA and MSMA circulated a sample ballot that instructed voters on how to reject the activist-led cannabis measure. The mailers said the associations were “asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”

Ultimately, however, nearly 74 percent of Mississippi voters approved the legalization initiative.

It will allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. It includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.

Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA and MSMA for additional information about the brief, which has not yet been posted on the state court’s public docket, but representative did not immediately respond.

The Mississippi case is just one example of legalization opponents asking the courts to overturn the will of voters who approve marijuana reform.

In South Dakota, another legal challenge against the constitutionality of a legalization initiative is playing out. In this case, plaintiffs—with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem (R)—are claiming that the recreational marijuana measure violates a state statute requiring that proposals that appear on the ballot on deal with a single subject.

Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use attempted to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.

The plaintiffs then announced they were pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.

Separately, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in September that a medical marijuana legalization initiative could not appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge, even though activists collected enough signatures to qualify.

The court determined that the measure violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule that limits the scope of what can be placed on the ballot before voters. Activists have already introduced a new initiative that they say will satisfy the court’s interpretation of state law—and their also working on a broader adult-use legalization measure.

New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal

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New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has released more details of his marijuana legalization proposal, including plans to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.

Following his State of the State address last week, in which the governor said enacting the reform could boost the economy while promoting social equity, he unveiled an outline of his agenda that provides more insights into what the state’s legal cannabis market could look like. Next, he’s expected to release the full budget proposal on Tuesday, which will contain much more detailed legislative language.

The State of the State Book released on Friday says Cuomo’s upcoming proposal would create an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the program, establish national standards and best practices to encourage responsible marijuana consumption and provide for “robust social and economic equity benefits to ensure New York’s law will create an egalitarian adult-use market structure that does not just facilitate market entry but ensures sustained market share for entrepreneurs in communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition.”

Notably, it also states that the plan will “correct past harms by investing in areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs, understanding that expunging past cannabis convictions helps to correct the injustice faced on the day that someone was arrested, but fails to correct the lasting harms that arrest has had on citizens, families, and communities.”

That’s important, as the governor in past years has pushed for marijuana tax revenue to be put into the state’s general fund, rather than specifically allocating resources for community reinvestment, as some lawmakers and advocates have urged.

That said, it remains to be seen exactly how the governor’s forthcoming budget will go about “investing” in communities that have been harmed by past prohibition enforcement and whether it will be deemed adequate by legislators and activists who have balked at his past proposals.

Cuomo has included legalization in his last two annual budget plans, but the issue has consistently stalled over details in negotiations.

That said, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If Cuomo were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.

The governor’s new outline also talks about making investments in research into harm reduction and education campaigns to deter youth use and impaired driving.

“Cannabis legalization will create more than 60,000 new jobs, spurring $3.5 billion in economic activity and generating an estimated $300 million in tax revenue when fully implemented,” the document says.

A separate section describes plans to bolster the state’s hemp industry.

To accomplish that, Cuomo will call together a workgroup “composed of hemp growers, researchers, producers, processors, manufacturers, and trade associations to make recommendations for the further development of hemp as a multi-use agricultural commodity and a mature cannabinoid wellness market.”

“The hemp workgroup will explore ways to provide more opportunities for New York growers and manufacturers and work to help facilitate the development of safe New York products that will meet the needs of informed consumers,” the plan says. The group’s recommendations could build upon regulations for hemp and CBD that were developed last year.

But for many advocates, it’s recreational legalization that has the spotlight this session. And to that end, New York lawmakers have made comments in recent months that indicate they feel the reform is inevitable, despite differing opinions on the specifics.

The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance next year, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.

Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.

The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.

Legislators prefiled a bill to legalize cannabis in New York earlier this month. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 other lawmakers, is identical to a version she filed last year that did not advance.

Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.

Biden Taps Marijuana Legalization Supporter To Lead Democratic National Committee

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