A bill to federally legalize marijuana will no longer receive a previously announced vote in the House of Representatives next week.
In an at least temporary blow to reform advocates, the legislation was not included in a weekly floor schedule posted by the office of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) on Thursday, though he made a commitment that the body would bring up the bill sometime “later this autumn,” presumably after the November elections. This comes two weeks after Hoyer initially said a vote was being planned for the week of September 21.
“The MORE Act remains a critical component of House Democrats’ plan for addressing systemic racism and advancing criminal justice reform, and we are committed to bringing it to the Floor for a vote before the end of the year,” Hoyer said. “Right now, the House is focused relentlessly on securing agreement to stave off a damaging government shutdown and continuing to do its job addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Later this autumn, the House will pass the MORE Act with strong support as yet another crucial step toward making our justice system fair for all Americans.”
It appears that the decision was influenced by certain moderate Democrats who’ve expressed concern that voting on a cannabis reform bill while another round of coronavirus relief legislation is still unresolved would be bad optics for their reelection campaigns.
There were some signals earlier this week that leadership was on the fence about advancing the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, with Hoyer saying on Tuesday that the priorities were passing a continuing resolution and COVID-19 relief bill.
That said, a representative from his office told Marijuana Moment at the time that the schedule hadn’t yet changed.
But now it’s been confirmed: the MORE Act will not get a vote next week.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), cochair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said on Wednesday that she was open to delaying the vote if it meant that more members would sign onto it, but she also told Marijuana Moment that lawmakers would be “doing everything we can over the next week to build broad coalitions of support to ensure that happens sooner rather than later.”
In a joint statement on Thursday, Lee and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, another leading marijuana reform advocate in Congress, said they “have worked to build support for this historic legislation and expected a vote next week.”
“As Americans confront hundreds of years of systemic racial injustice, ending the failed war on drugs that has disproportionately hurt Black and Brown Americans must be front and center. As co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, our goal has always been a vote on federal marijuana legalization and restorative justice this Congress,” they said. “Thankfully, the leadership has now given an ironclad commitment that the House will consider the bill this fall. The public deserves this vote and we will continue to build support to meet our objective of passing the MORE Act in the House and sending it to the Senate, which is one step closer to enacting it into law.”
The MORE Act would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a federal five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.
It 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.
Two-thirds of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, according to a Gallup poll released late last year. That includes a majority of Republicans (51 percent) and a supermajority of Democrats (76 percent).
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) recently said he was “confident” it would pass the chamber.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor on the bill, said earlier this month that he would be voting “yes” on the MORE Act, though he expressed criticism about a provision that would impose a federal excise tax on marijuana sales to be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war, calling them “reparations.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) also said “I intend to vote yes on the bill” in a recent interview with Politico. “With respect to timing, I do find it ironic that the only small businesses the Democrats seem to be worried about is cannabis shops, but I would support this bill whenever it is brought to a vote,” he said.
McClintock, along with Gaetz, voted for the MORE Act when it was marked up by the Judiciary Committee last year.
The bill stood a chance to bringing on other GOP supporters as well.
A spokesperson for Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) told Marijuana Moment that he “supports decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level and removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act” and “believes that states individually should be able to determine their own marijuana policies, not the federal government” but would “wait and see what final bill the House Democrats put on the floor and if they will attempt to amend it” before deciding whether he would vote yes.
A total of 31 Republicans House members voted in favor of a floor amendment in July that would prevent the Department of Justice from interfering with state marijuana laws.
Legalization advocates are disappointed that House leaders reneged on their previously announced plan to vote on the broader legalization bill this month.
“Though it appears to be a temporary delay, we are seriously disappointed by this news as time and time again, communities directly impacted by systemic injustices are made to wait for justice and change,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “While Congress waits on a more ‘politically convenient’ time to pass a wildly popular, bipartisan issue, individuals and families will continue to be robbed of employment opportunities, housing, education, public benefits—even their children—due to a plant that is at the center of what is estimated to be a billion dollar industry.”
“It’s reprehensible to say the least,” she said. “We hope to see Members of Congress’ commitment to racial justice actualized through the swift passage of the MORE Act in November.”
Advocates said they maintained hope that reform will continue to have momentum at all levels of government.
“This delay by the House does not change the fact that the overwhelming majority of voters support ending the federal prohibition of cannabis, including majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “This delay does not change the fact that 33 states and the District of Columbia regulate the production and distribution of medical cannabis in a manner that is inconsistent with federal policy, and that one-out-of-four Americans now reside in jurisdictions where adult-use is legal under state law.”
“This delay does not change the fact that voters in several states, including key electoral battleground states for both control of the presidency and the Senate, will be passing similar state-level marijuana measures on Election Day,” he added.
Meanwhile, opponents of legalization, including Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) and the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana, are celebrating the development.
With all the work Congress should be doing, taking valuable time to legalize a gateway drug to opioid use would not have been a good idea. https://t.co/doLTcmkZ5J
— Rep. Andy Harris, MD (@RepAndyHarrisMD) September 17, 2020
This vote delay is the latest disappointment that reform advocates have experienced from the Democratic party of late. They were hopeful, for example, that the party would nominate a presidential candidate who would support legalization after most primary contenders went on record in favor of the change—but nominee Joe Biden remains opposed and backs more modest proposals such as possession decriminalization and expungements.
The Democratic National Committee’s platform committee in July voted against an amendment that would’ve added legalization as a 2020 party plank—a move that some suspect was influenced by a desire not to formally endorse a policy opposed by Biden.
In light of that, some advocates are concerned that if the Democratic House doesn’t go on record by passing bold marijuana reform this year, it may be reluctant to send a would-be President Biden a legalization bill that he does not want in 2021.
This story was updated to include comments from Hoyer, Lee, Blumenauer, NORML and Drug Policy Alliance.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.