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Marijuana Expungements Hinge On Result Of Arizona Prosecutor Race

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One candidate for Maricopa County attorney says she’ll make clearing past marijuana convictions ‘universal and automatic’ if elected. The other has not said she would do anything to support expunging criminal records.

By Meg O’Connor, The Appeal

Arizona could soon join 11 other states that have legalized recreational marijuana. In two weeks, residents will have a chance to vote on Proposition 207, a ballot initiative that would allow people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, reduce the criminal penalties for other marijuana possession offenses, and pave the way for hundreds of thousands of people to expunge past convictions. If it passes, the state’s top prosecutors could play a huge role in upholding the law and facilitating—or thwarting—people’s petitions to clear their criminal records.

“In Pima and Maricopa [counties], Democrats are running in support of expungement and talking about how they will direct folks in their office to process mass expungements,” said Stacy Pearson, a political consultant for the campaign to pass Prop 207. “I think who is in office is critically important. How these prosecuting agencies respond to petitions is going to be key.”

Legalizing recreational marijuana and providing a path to expungement would be a major shift for Arizona, where possession of even a small amount is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a $150,000 fine. Though a proposition passed in 1996 prevents people from being sent to prison for their first or second marijuana possession offense, people were often instead diverted to the Treatment Assessment Screening Center (TASC)—a program facing a federal civil rights lawsuit for allegedly being a money-making racket that extorts poor people by threatening them with felony prosecution. Adel scrapped TASC and switched to a different felony diversion program, and the TASC lawsuit is moving toward a settlement.

Still over 100 people are currently incarcerated for marijuana possession in Arizona, and more than 15,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession statewide in 2018. ACLU reports on arrest, charging, and sentencing data have found that people of color are disproportionately affected by marijuana criminalization: Black Arizona residents are about three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white residents, and Black and Hispanic people prosecuted by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office face longer sentences for marijuana possession than white people.

“These laws have impacted people of color far more than white folks despite white people using marijuana at comparable rates,” said Jonathan Udell, the communications director for Arizona NORML and an attorney at Rose Law Group. “Arizona is the one state where possession of any amount of marijuana constitutes a felony. That has all kinds of impacts on people. Literally just possessing a small amount of a plant can ruin the rest of your life.”

Besides suffering the criminal penalties, like prison time and steep fees, a person with a marijuana conviction on their record in Arizona can have difficulty finding a job (and the healthcare that comes with it) and housing. Immigration status, eligibility to receive public funds like welfare benefits and student loans, and voting rights can also be threatened by a felony conviction.

Whoever is elected Maricopa County attorney this November will have a significant effect on the way marijuana continues to be prosecuted in the state, and could either help or hinder the effort to expunge past criminal convictions. (The county is home to Phoenix and 4.5 million of Arizona’s nearly 7 million residents.) Julie Gunnigle, the Democratic challenger for the top prosecutor role, has pledged to do everything she can to help people expunge marijuana possession convictions if Prop 207 passes, while the incumbent county attorney, Republican Allister Adel, has said only that she would enforce the new law if it passes and did not respond when asked if she would do anything to support the expungement process.

If Prop 207 passes, Arizonans can submit petitions to expunge past marijuana convictions to the court. Certain marijuana offenses would be eligible for expungement, and anyone who applies for expungement will be considered qualified unless proven otherwise. The onus is on the prosecutor’s office to contest the petition. If it doesn’t contest the petition within 30 days, the conviction is expunged, Pearson, the political consultant, said.

Through her campaign manager, Gunnigle told The Appeal she supports Prop 207 and thinks the opportunity for expungement included in the initiative is especially important. She said she is committed to creating an expungement process that “is both universal and automatic.” And if the measure passes, Gunnigle said she would dismiss any pending cases involving possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.

“On day one, I would dismiss every pending low-level marijuana case, and make office policy that no personal-use amounts of cannabis will be charged and [that] no objections will be filed when those convicted of such offenses move to set aside their convictions,” she said in a March questionnaire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. In a second questionnaire in August, Gunnigle said, “I will do everything possible to support people seeking to expunge old marijuana possession convictions.”

Adel’s campaign spokesperson did not directly respond when asked whether she supports the measure, and whether she would dismiss any pending cases involving possession of less than one ounce of marijuana if it passes.

“Proposition 207 is not retroactive,” the spokesperson, Lorna Romero, said instead, “and if it is to pass it will be the law going forward, and one that the office will follow and implement according to the letter of the law.”

The “letter of the law” does leave a few openings where, should Arizona county attorneys choose to do so, prosecutors could still seek harsh penalties for marijuana possession. After Arizona legalized medical marijuana in 2010, former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery tried to get around the law by threatening to prosecute medical marijuana patients for concentrates. In 2013, Montgomery brought charges against a medical marijuana patient over one piece of THC-infused candy. Advocates fear the wrong county attorney could continue to flout the will of the voters should Prop 207 pass. Before she was appointed to the county attorney role last year, Adel said Montgomery had “served our county well” and that she’d “be honored to build upon that legacy.”

Prop 207 would also allow adults over the age of 21 to grow up to six marijuana plants at their home. It’s possible that the marijuana plants you could legally grow in your home could produce more marijuana than the one ounce you are legally allowed to possess.

“There’s some open-ended legal questions there,” Udell from NORML said. “That raises some concerns in my mind. … I think if you had someone like Allister Adel in office, there’d be more of a chance that she could go after people for stuff like that.”

Gunnigle said it is up to the state legislature to pass laws to close the loopholes if Prop 207 passes, but that she would decline to prosecute “personal use cases of marijuana, including concentrates.”

Even if Prop 207 doesn’t pass, Gunnigle has pledged not to prosecute people for personal possession of marijuana. She told The Appeal that if she is elected, she would “issue a memo directing all prosecutors not to charge personal use marijuana cases” on her first day in office, and “review and dismiss all pending cases that were previously charged.”

Adel’s campaign did not directly respond when asked whether she would do anything to ensure the legal loopholes are not used to prosecute people harshly for marijuana. She has also not said whether she would decline to prosecute all cases of personal possession of marijuana.

“Maricopa County [Attorney] Allister Adel believes in a ‘treatment first’ approach where we need to look at the offender and not the offense,” Romero told The Appeal. “For low-level drug possession crimes, her priority is to get the defendant services they need to treat addiction. These types of crimes are ideal for the Felony Diversion Program she established.”

Under that felony diversion program, people can get their drug possession charges dismissed—as long as they successfully complete the program. In August, Adel also implemented a new policy allowing anyone who was arrested for simple marijuana possession to avoid prosecution if they obtain a medical marijuana card. Critics have pointed out that the policy only helps those who can afford a card.

A ballot measure to legalize recreational weed in Arizona failed by a slim margin in 2016. Now, it seems more likely that the measure could pass. Several recent polls have shown majority support for Prop 207. A recent poll from Data For Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute found that a majority of likely voters in Maricopa County are more inclined to vote for a county attorney who supports ending prosecution for marijuana possession offenses and expunging previous possession convictions.  (The Justice Collaborative Institute and The Appeal are both independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.)

Justin Strekal, NORML’s political director, said prosecutors worked to expunge convictions right away in some jurisdictions where recreational marijuana has been legalized. “In other jurisdictions,” Strekal said, “that justice is delayed, and the collateral consequences of having criminal records continues to hold people back.”

“That’s where the impact of having partners in local office is absolutely critical,” said Strekal. “It can mean the difference between life and death for these individuals when holding on to these criminal records can prevent people from getting a job that could get them healthcare.”

This story was first published by The Appeal.

The Appeal is a non-profit media organization that produces news and commentary on how policy, politics, and the legal system affect America’s most vulnerable people.

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.

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Lawmakers And Advocates React To Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill’s House Passage

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The House on Friday passed a historic bill to federally legalize marijuana, eliciting cheers from pro-reform lawmakers and advocates, and scorn from opponents.

Perhaps no member is more elated than Rep. opEarl Blumenauer (D-OR), a longtime advocate who has pushed hard to get his colleagues on board and advance legalization. He said during a press briefing following the vote that the bill is “going to make a huge difference for people all across America as Congress starts to catch up to where the American public is.”

“There’s a whole range of things that the MORE Act fixes,” he said. “But most important is it stops this failed war on drugs that is so unfair to Americans of color, particularly black and brown. It will stop the federal interference with research. It’ll allow this emerging market to thrive, make it possible for more people to participate and be able to get on with their lives.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), another Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair, also participated in the presser and said this “really is a moment for racial justice.”

“We know that this year has put inequality and systemic racism to the forefront of our attention, and there’s no better way to close out this year than to really begin to atone for the destructive policies brought on by the failed war on drugs,” she said.

The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber in a decisive 228-164 vote, would federally deschedule marijuana and allow people with prior cannabis convictions to have their records expunged. Descheduling would be retroactive. It also contain provisions to tax cannabis and use the revenue to fund programs to aid people harmed by the war on drugs.

But its chances of becoming law this session are low, as the Republican-controlled Senate isn’t expected to take up the legislation before adjourning early next month. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is one of numerous GOP members who’s criticized House leadership in recent days for holding the vote in the first place.

(See Marijuana Moment’s earlier roundup of dozens of Republicans who slammed the marijuana vote this week.)

To advocates, however, this is long overdue progress on an issue that has been sidelined in Congress for years. Reactions to the vote largely differ across partisan lines, but the passage of the MORE Act has clearly captured the attention of legislators and organizations far and wide.

Here’s a roundup of what they’ve been saying about the bill’s advancement:

Supportive Lawmakers

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)

“Today, with the bipartisan MORE Act, the House has proudly passed one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history. This momentous step helps end the devastating injustices of the criminalization of marijuana that have disproportionately impacted low income communities and communities of color, and reflects the overwhelming will of the American people — 47 states have recently reformed marijuana laws, with California at the helm of this justice effort.

“The MORE Act builds on these advancements and finally secures justice for those negatively impacted by the brutal, unfair consequences of criminalization. This landmark legislation will also open the doors of opportunity for all people to participate in the growing cannabis industry and provide revenue and resources to communities to grow.

“Guided by the tireless voices of advocates and young people, and the leadership of Democrats, the House has achieved an extraordinary victory for our fundamental values of justice, equality and opportunity for all. Our Majority will fight to enact this vital legislation as we work to lift up communities of color and advance progress for all.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD)

“Today, the House passed legislation important to Democrats’ work addressing systemic racism and reforming our criminal justice system. Millions of Americans’ lives have been upended as a result of convictions for possessing small amounts of marijuana, and the racial disparities in conviction rates for those offenses are as shocking as they are unjust. That’s why we passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act today, which will decriminalize cannabis possession and create a process to expunge the records of those convicted of non-violent marijuana possession in the past. As a result of those convictions, many now have difficulty finding jobs or obtaining loans, effectively excluding them from economic opportunity, which, in the context of the severe racial disparities of those convictions, represents a modern-day form of segregation.

“I want to thank Chairman Nadler of the Judiciary Committee for authoring this legislation, along with Vice President-elect Harris in the Senate, and for moving it swiftly through his committee before the end of the 116th Congress. I also want to thank Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Rep. Barbara Lee for their longtime advocacy for this type of reform. I hope the Senate will join us in passing this legislation, and I will work with Chairman Nadler, with the Congressional Black Caucus, and with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to continue advancing measures that fix our broken criminal justice system and root out the racial injustices in policing and sentencing in our country.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)

“While I have serious reservations regarding some of the specifics of this bill, I will vote yes on the MORE Act because the status quo, where marijuana laws continue to ravage communities of color, is untenable and must change immediately. For decades, the ‘War on Drugs’ and racism thbat has long stained our criminal justice system has resulted in people of color being arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for marijuana offenses at rates far exceeding white people. The destructive and inequitable policies that led to these disparities must end. However, I must make clear that my preferred legislative path would be decriminalizing marijuana and rescheduling it from Schedule I to Schedule III in order to allow us to better research the proven concerns around its safety and long-term health impacts. I cast my vote today in support of the provisions of the bill that will alleviate the injustice but remain opposed to the de-scheduling provisions and believe rescheduling and modifying regulations to allow more research is the more prudent approach. Given that the MORE Act will not become law, I will continue to pursue this more safe, prudent, and politically viable legislative path.”

Opposing Lawmakers

Rep. David Joyce (R-OH)

“Over the last several years, I’ve been proud to lead the effort to protect the rights of states across the country, like Ohio, that have voted to implement responsible, common-sense cannabis policies. I firmly believe we need to clarify cannabis policy on the federal level and allow states to determine their own policies without fear of federal repercussion.

“However, this partisan bill deprived us of the opportunity to do just that. There are several bipartisan proposals that have the chance to actually become law and help the thousands of businesses, workers, and patients that rely on the cannabis industry. By bringing the MORE Act up for a vote instead, Congress is failing to enact sensible and meaningful cannabis reforms.

“That’s not to mention the fact that government funding runs out in seven days and we have yet to finalize a funding deal or a much-needed COVID-19 relief package. I’ve heard from hospital systems that are overwhelmed, small business owners who are struggling to keep their doors open, and workers who have lost their jobs. There are only four more days Congress is scheduled to be in session this year. Congress needs to stop playing partisan messaging games and get to work.”

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA)

“I support decriminalizing marijuana. It’s a big, serious issue that needs to be done the right way. This is a small, non-serious bill that wasn’t done the right way and will never be signed into law, regardless of who is President. And everyone knows that. This was an opportunity for people to say they voted to ‘legalize marijuana’ without doing any of the work to actually accomplish that.

“I hope we do take this up in a serious way in the future. For now I’m focused on the fact that an American is dying every minute, people are losing jobs and going broke, and we’re in a recession. People say ‘you can do two things at once’ — well, Congress usually can’t even do one thing at once. Which is why we still haven’t gotten a COVID relief deal. So maybe for now we should stay focused on the deadly, devastating health and economic crisis that’s raging in every single one of our districts.”

Other Politicians

 

Advocacy Organizations

Photo courtesy of Jurassic Blueberries.

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Bill To Legalize Marijuana In Mexico Advancing In Committees Ahead Of Final Floor Vote

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A bill to legalize marijuana nationwide in Mexico is getting hearings in multiple committees of the Chamber of Deputies on Friday and Saturday following its approval in the Senate last month.

The body’s Justice, Health, Human Rights and Budget and Public Accounts Committees are all taking up the cannabis reform bill, and advocates expect it will be cleared for a final floor vote on Wednesday.

Lawmakers are working on a tight schedule, as enacting the policy change is required under a Supreme Court ruling that deemed prohibition of personal use and cultivation unconstitutional. The court has most recently given Congress a deadline of December 15 to legalize marijuana for adults.

Over the next couple of days, activists and experts will offer testimony before committee members. It’s not clear if members of the chamber will push to make further amendments to the bill, as that would create a situation where it would have to go back to the Senate, delaying its passage with the deadline looming.

But Ignacio Mier Velazco, coordinator of the ruling MORENA party in the chamber, said that deputies will make changes if they deem it necessary.

“We will fulfill our responsibility to deliver a clear, concise and precise law to Mexican society,” he said, according to a translation.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said last week that the legislation is “part of carrying out a revolution of consciences, where each of us is responsible for his actions.”

“The development of freedoms is very important,” he said at a press conference.

That said, reform advocates remain concerned about a number of provisions in the proposal as it stands.

There were several revisions made in the Senate prior to last month’s vote, but most of those were technical in nature.

However, there were a number of notable changes, such as an increase from the initial limit of four self-cultivated plants per person and to make it so people who grow cannabis for personal use will not be subject to a requirement to have regulators track plants.

An additional change mandates that the government clear criminal records of people with past cannabis convictions within six months.

Lawmakers also removed a prohibition on owning more than one type of marijuana license, allowing for vertical integration of cannabis businesses. A previous version of the bill would have only allowed people from vulnerable communities to hold more than one license type.

Another modification that advocates are not happy with says that nonprofit associations of consumers that collectively cultivate cannabis must be located at least 500 meters from schools, sports and recreation centers and anywhere that third parties who have not given their consent could be exposed to smoke.

The legalization bill cleared a joint group of Senate committees prior to the full floor vote, with some amendments being made after members informally considered and debated the proposal during a virtual hearing.

Members of the Senate’s Justice, Health, and Legislative Studies Committees had approved a prior version of legal cannabis legislation in March, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed consideration of the issue.

While advocates have celebrated the advancement of cannabis reform through the legislature, they have fought hard for changes to better protect consumers’ rights and promote social equity in the legal market. Namely, they remain concerned about high penalties that can be imposed for violating the cannabis rules and feel the bill should do more to allow opportunities for small farmers.

However, Ricardo Monreal, the ruling MORENA party’s coordinator in the Senate, argued that the proposal is a significant improvement on current laws against possession, which have “only caused the detention centers to be full of people for possession of a few grams of cannabis, which is why they seek to reduce the penalties in carrying of this product.”

Lawmakers have “the historic opportunity to regulate the use of cannabis within the Mexican regulatory framework, to allow better control of the health of users, the emancipation of organized crime activities and the use of its wide benefits for society,” he said, adding “this is a momentous moment in the public life of the country.”

Senate President Eduardo Ramírez said that there is a “consensus” to achieve the reform by the court-mandated date.

The legislation makes some attempts to mitigate the influence of large marijuana corporations. For example, it states that for the first five years after implementation, at least 40 percent of cannabis business licenses must be granted to those from indigenous, low-income or historically marginalized communities.

The Mexican Institute of Cannabis would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing licenses.

Public consumption of marijuana would be allowed, except in places where tobacco use is prohibited or at mass gatherings where people under 18 could be exposed.

Households where more than one adult lives would be limited to cultivating a maximum of eight plants. The legislation also says people “should not” consume cannabis in homes where there are underaged individuals. Possession of more than 28 grams but fewer than 200 grams would be considered an infraction punishable by a fine but no jail time.

Monreal originally said the chamber would vote on the legalization bill by the end of October, but that timeline did not work out.

Sen. Julio Ramón Menchaca Salazar, also of the MORENA party, said in April that legalizing cannabis could fill treasury coffers at a time when the economy is recovering from the pandemic.

As lawmakers work to advance the reform legislation, there’s been a more lighthearted push to focus attention on the issue by certain members and activists. That push has mostly involved planting and gifting marijuana.

In September, a top administration official was gifted a cannabis plant by senator on the Senate floor, and she said she’d be making it a part of her personal garden.

A different lawmaker gave the same official, Interior Ministry Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero, a marijuana joint on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies last year.

Cannabis made another appearance in the legislature in August, when Sen. Jesusa Rodríguez of the MORENA party decorated her desk with a marijuana plant.

Drug policy reform advocates have also been cultivating hundreds of marijuana plants in front of the Senate, putting pressure on legislators to make good on their pledge to advance legalization.

House Approves Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill In Historic Vote

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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.

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