The chairman of a key congressional committee responsible for crime policy is teaming up with a senator running for president to file legislation on Tuesday that would federally legalize marijuana and seek to repair some of the harms of a war on drugs that has been waged primarily against people of color.
The move by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who leads the Judiciary Committee, and 2020 Democratic contender Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) signals that, at least on the House side of Capitol Hill, a floor vote to end federal cannabis prohibition could come before the end of the year.
If enacted, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would remove marijuana and THC from the Controlled Substances Act, provide for expungement and resentencing of prior convictions and prevent federal agencies from using cannabis as a reason to deny access to benefits or citizenship status for immigrants.
It would also impose a five percent federal tax on the sales of marijuana products. Some of that revenue would be directed toward a new Opportunity Trust Fund aimed at supporting grant programs to provide job training and legal aid for people impacted by prohibition enforcement, loans for small marijuana businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals and efforts to minimize barriers to licensing and employment in the legal industry. Some of these efforts would be run through a new Cannabis Justice Office in the Department of Justice.
The far-reaching legislation was filed on the same day that a Senate committee is scheduled to hold a highly anticipated hearing on banking access by marijuana businesses, indicating that federal cannabis reform has increased momentum on both sides of Capitol Hill.
It also comes as Nadler prepares for an unrelated high-stakes Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday with Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, about his investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s conduct.
“Despite the legalization of marijuana in states across the country, those with criminal convictions for marijuana still face second class citizenship. Their vote, access to education, employment and housing are all negatively impacted,” Nadler said. “Racially motivated enforcement of marijuana laws has disproportionally impacted communities of color. It’s past time to right this wrong nationwide and work to view marijuana use as an issue of personal choice and public health, not criminal behavior.”
Proud to introduce the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act w/ @SenKamalaHarris to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and bring justice to communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs. https://t.co/VoGuDxlbKc
— (((Rep. Nadler))) (@RepJerryNadler) July 23, 2019
The panel’s Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee held a hearing earlier this month focused on the issue of ending cannabis prohibition. While lawmakers from both parties voiced broad support for some measure of marijuana reform, there was disagreement on specific components of would-be legalization plans—with significant contention over whether restorative justice and equity measures must be included. A look at the new bill’s provisions indicates that Democratic leadership believes simply legalizing marijuana is not enough.
The legislation from Nadler and Harris includes language making provisions that deschedule marijuana retroactive and also specifies that federal agencies “may not use past or present cannabis or marijuana use as criteria for granting, denying, or rescinding a security clearance.”
The bill would require that any uses of the words “marijuana” or “marihuana” in U.S. Code or regulations be replaced with the term “cannabis”—despite the fact that the legislation has “marijuana” in its own title.
Original cosponsors of Harris’s Senate bill include Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—two of her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination—as well as Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
Signing onto the House version are Rules Committee Chair James McGovern (D-MA) and Small Business Committee Chair Nydia Velazquez (D-NY).
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is the sole Republican cosponsor, and is joined by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), David Cicilline (D-RI), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Lou Correa (D-CA), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Ted Deutch (D-FL), Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Hank Johnson (D-GA), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Jamie Raskin (D-MA), Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Dwight Evans (D-PA), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Debra A. Haaland (D-NM), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).
✅Expunge marijuana convictions
✅Create economic opportunities for communities
This is the most comprehensive cannabis reform bill to ever come before Congress!
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) July 23, 2019
The #MOREAct would legalize #marijuana, require resentencing and expungement of old marijuana convictions, and invest money in communities most affected by the failed War on Drugs. This is real reform. I’m proud to be an original cosponsor of the bill. #LegalizeIt #Cannabis https://t.co/luzZUCzLXg
— Steve Cohen (@RepCohen) July 23, 2019
Numerous alternate proposals to overhaul federal cannabis laws have already been filed during the 116th Congress, but that the new bill displays the House Judiciary Committee chairman’s name as its chief sponsor suggests it will likely be the vehicle through which the chamber considers ending prohibition in any votes over the coming months.
That said, the legislation as introduced may well see large and small revisions during an as yet unscheduled committee markup session, or later on the floor. And it is possible that provisions from other existing proposals could be merged in to achieve greater support for the bill when it comes time for a vote.
The new measure and others that have previously been filed with social equity components are largely cosponsored by Democrats—in most cases with zero Republicans on board.
A different approach, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, has achieved bipartisan support by maintaining a narrower focus on respecting the implementation of local marijuana laws without including justice-focused provisions.
Some advocates believe that the simpler bill stands a better chance of moving through the GOP-controlled Senate, though its even being brought up for consideration there before the end of this Congress is far from certain. It is possible that the Democratic House will pass something closer to Nadler’s justice-inclusive approach with the Senate potentially opting for a states’ rights-focused effort, after which the two chambers could negotiate some form of compromise to send to President Trump for signing into law.
Meanwhile, the House Financial Services Committee has already approved even narrower cannabis banking legislation, with its Senate counterpart set to consider the issue on Tuesday. While a House floor vote had been long anticipated prior to the August recess, expectations have recently shifted toward potential fall action.
Proud to support the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act here in the House of Representatives. This bill is one of the most comprehensive marijuana reform bills ever introduced in Congress & aims to correct the historical injustices of failed drug policies. https://t.co/tBXQeAKYQp
— Rep. Ted Lieu (@RepTedLieu) July 23, 2019
Nadler has consistently voted in favor of marijuana amendments on the House floor since at least 2003, and he has cosponsored numerous reform bills, dating back to a 1997 proposal to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference as well as descheduling legislation beginning in 2011. He’s since signed onto measures concerning marijuana business banking and taxes.
“An examination of our marijuana laws and potential reforms is long overdue,” he said at the start of the Judiciary subcommittee hearing on cannabis this month. “I should add that one of my first votes that I cast as a freshman member of the state Assembly in New York in 1977 was to decriminalize marijuana in New York.”
For Harris, her sponsorship of the new comprehensive legislation is the latest step in an ongoing evolution on cannabis policy as she seeks the presidency.
Today I introduced a comprehensive marijuana reform bill that is the first step towards legalization. My bill will:⁰
✅Decriminalize marijuana at the federal level
⁰✅Expunge prior marijuana convictions⁰
✅Use tax revenue from marijuana sales to help those w/ prior convictions
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) July 23, 2019
In 2010, as San Francisco’s district attorney, she coauthored an official California voter guide argument against a proposed marijuana legalization measure that appeared on the state’s ballot that year, saying it was “flawed public policy and would compromise the safety of our roadways, workplaces and communities.”
In 2014, during her reelection bid as state attorney general, she laughed at a reporter rather than supply a substantive response when asked about her Republican opponent’s support for legalizing cannabis.
She later declined to endorse the 2016 legalization measure that her state’s voters went on to approve, and first publicly backed ending prohibition last year when cosponsoring a separate cannabis reform bill filed by presidential rival Booker.
“Times have changed—marijuana should not be a crime,” Harris said in a press release about the new bill. “We need to start regulating marijuana, and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives. As marijuana becomes legal across the country, we must make sure everyone—especially communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs—has a real opportunity to participate in this growing industry.”
The War on Drugs was an abject failure that disproportionately criminalized people of color—it's time we take steps to fix that.
Today I’m introducing a bill to decriminalize marijuana and bring justice to communities of color harmed by failed drug policies.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) July 23, 2019
Other provisions of the new legislation would allow cannabis firms to take advantage of Small Business Administration programs and would mandate that the Bureau of Labor Statistics collect data on the demographic makeup of the marijuana industry. It would also require cannabis product manufacturers to register with the Treasury Department and would treat cannabis products in the same manner as tobacco products under the Internal Revenue Code.
Leading pro-legalization organizations praised the MORE Act’s focus on restorative justice.
“The disproportionate rates of marijuana arrests and incarceration faced by low-income communities and communities of color only scratch the surface of the devastation that prohibition has caused,” said Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Marijuana convictions have disrupted people’s lives—from one’s ability to secure or maintain employment, housing, funds for education, a valid driver’s license to the ability to keep one’s kids or remain in this country for noncitizens. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act ends prohibition in a way that centers communities most impacted by criminalization with reform that is as comprehensive as the decades of harm inflicted.”
— David Cicilline (@davidcicilline) July 23, 2019
NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said the bill “embodies the need to legalize cannabis and restore the rights of those who have suffered under the cruel and failed policy of criminalization.”
“At a point in time when simultaneously one person could have their life ruined in New York for the exact same action that makes someone in California a millionaire, now more than ever we must end the federal prohibition of marijuana,” he said.
It absolutely is! Proud to be an original co-sponsor of this gamechanging legislation & grateful to you & my colleagues for their leadership #cannabis #equity #restorativejustice #wealthgap https://t.co/rck9NnCW8e
— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) July 23, 2019
Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, which has focused much of its efforts around the more limited STATES Act this year, said that it represents “a momentous amount of progress” to have the chairman of a major House panel file legislation to end marijuana prohibition.
“With both the chair and the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee supporting major cannabis policy reform, the end of federal cannabis prohibition is undoubtedly near,” he said, referring to cosponsorship of the STATES Act from Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the panel’s top GOP member.
For too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past. Congress has a responsibility to ensure that our laws are fair, equitable, and inclusive. As Cannabis Caucus Co-Chair, I’m proud to work with @RepJerryNadler on the MORE Act. https://t.co/JpMEUHb08I
— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) July 23, 2019
In other congressional cannabis news, the Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to hold a Thursday hearing on the implementation of hemp legalization featuring testimony from U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency officials.
And last month, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to a spending bill that would prevent the Department of Justice from intervening in state and territory marijuana laws, though the Senate has not yet taken up its version of the appropriations legislation.
Read the full text of the new Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement below:
Nine Members Of Congress Tell DEA To Revise Proposed Hemp Rule On THC Content
Nine members of Congress sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Tuesday, urging the agency to revise its proposed hemp regulations.
DEA released an interim final rule (IFR) for the crop in August, and it said the regulations were simply meant to comply with the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives. But stakeholders and advocates have expressed serious concerns about certain proposals, arguing that they could put processors at risk of violating federal law and hamper the industry’s growth.
Reps. David Joyce (R-OH) and Denver Riggleman (R-VA) led the letter and pointed specifically to a provision of DEA’s IFR that could impact processing hemp extracts. The agency stipulated that “any such material that contains greater than 0.3% of Δ9-THC on a dry weight basis remains controlled in schedule I.”
That’s problematic, the lawmakers said, because in many cases the process of extracting cannabinoids from hemp temporarily causes THC levels to increase beyond that threshold. And so while Congress intended to legalize those extracts, businesses that produce the materials could find themselves inadvertently breaking the law.
I sent a letter to the @DEAHQ asking them to protect hemp producers and clarify hemp regulations.
The DEA must specify their requirements and streamline hemp directives by clarifying the legal means of processing hemp products. Read more here, #VA05:https://t.co/wGabQePrts
— Congressman Denver Riggleman (@RepRiggleman) October 21, 2020
“Our offices have received countless calls from constituents involved in the hemp industry who are extremely fearful that simply following the provisions of the Farm Bill will result in criminal liability under the IFR,” the lawmakers’ letter states. “The IFR will likely have the effect of inhibiting these nascent state hemp programs thereby harming those American companies and workers who chose to pursue careers in the hemp industry and made significant investments to effectuate those aspirations.”
Therefore, the lawmakers are “requesting a resolution to this issue as quickly as possible,” adding that “DEA must revise the IFR to eliminate the ambiguities set forth above and provide peace of mind to all Americans who have chosen to pursue a career in the hemp industry.”
Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Glenn Grothman (R-WI), Don Young (R-AK), Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) also signed the letter.
A public comment period on DEA’s proposed rules closed on Tuesday. It saw more than 3,300 submissions, many of which focused on issues with the “work in progress” hemp THC issue.
“This IFR’s criminalizes work in progress hemp extract, a fundamental component of any consumer hemp/CBD product, and will negatively impact the hemp/CBD industry at a time when financial pressure is already high,” one commenter wrote. “Hemp and subsequent extracts are not controlled substances.”
Another issue identified by more than 1,000 commenters concerns delta-8 THC. The most widely known cannabinoid is delta-9 THC, the main component responsible for creating an intoxicating effect, but delta-8 THC from hemp is also psychoactive and is an object of growing interest within the market.
Because DEA’s proposed regulations state that all “synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols remain schedule I controlled substances,” some feel that would directly impact the burgeoning cannabinoid, as its converted from CBD through the use of a catalyst—and that could be interpreted as a synthetic production process.
In any case, it’s not clear whether DEA deliberately crafted either of these rules with the intent of criminalizing certain hemp producers—but stakeholders and advocates aren’t taking any chances.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which also closed this month.
USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.
Read the congressional coalition’s letter to DEA on its hemp rule below:
Pennsylvania House Votes To Protect Medical Marijuana Patients From DUI Charges
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved an amendment on Tuesday that would protect medical marijuana patients from being penalized under the state’s DUI laws for using their legal medicine.
The proposal cleared the chamber as an amendment to a broader piece of legislation concerning motor vehicle policies. It passed in a 109-93 vote.
As it stands, registered medical cannabis patients can be convicted of driving under the influence of a controlled substance if THC metabolites are detected in their blood. That’s despite the fact that marijuana can remain present in the body well after someone is considered impaired.
The House-approved amendment, which is now attached to a bill previously passed by the Senate, exempts “marijuana used lawfully in accordance with” the state’s medical cannabis law from DUI statutes.
“I think that you can ask any veteran or anybody that’s using medical cannabis right now, if they took the prescription on Monday, [on] Wednesday, they’re not high,” Rep. Ed Gainey (D) said in a floor speech before the vote. “And if they got pulled over, they darned shouldn’t be charged for being intoxicated or under the influence of medical marijuana.”
Medical marijuana has helped the people of the Pennsylvania. But even if you have a medical card, you can still get a DUI even if you’re not high – if you have a trace of THC in your system. Today I fought to pass a bill that would end that. pic.twitter.com/uxj8IsuVO9
— Ed Gainey (@RepGainey) October 21, 2020
“I think we’re putting an undue burden on the people of Pennsylvania if we’re saying this is what we want to do after we fought so hard to pass medical marijuana and we know what it’s done to help the people of Pennsylvania,” he said.
The amendment is similar in intent to separate standalone legislation introduced by Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R) in June to end the “zero tolerance” DUI policy for medical marijuana.
While Pennsylvania legalized medical cannabis in 2016, with the first dispensaries opening two years later, the law has not caught up as it concerns impaired driving. A person can test positive for THC for weeks after last consuming marijuana, rendering traditional roadside tests incapable of determining active impairment.
Several legal cannabis states have enacted per se THC limits in blood, similar to blood alcohol requirements. However, evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.
A study published last year, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.
Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance… studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”
The modest cannabis DUI reform approved by the Pennsylvania House comes amid repeated calls from the state’s leaders to more broadly legalize marijuana for adult use.
Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) in a speech stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.
That marked the third time in three months that the governor has held events focused on making the case for legalization. Last month, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), a longstanding legalization advocate, has been similarly vocal about his position. In speeches and on social media, the official has expressed frustration that Pennsylvania has yet to enact the policy change, especially as neighboring like New Jersey are moving in that direction.
He said last month that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously legalize cannabis before voters next door in the Garden State enact the policy change this November.
Fetterman also recently hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.
While Wolf initially opposed adult-use legalization, he came out in support of the reform last year after Fetterman led a statewide listening tour last year to solicit public input on the issue.
Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montana Supreme Court Rejects Challenge To Marijuana Legalization Initiative
The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on the state’s November ballot.
With weeks before the election, opponents asked the court to quash the measure, arguing that because it involves appropriating funds, it violates state statute on citizen initiatives.
The court didn’t weigh in on the merits of the challenge; rather, it said the petitioners with the campaign Wrong for Montana (WFM) failed to demonstrate “urgency or emergency factors” that would justify moving the case into its jurisdiction instead of going through trial and appeals courts first.
It left the door open for the opponents to take its challenge through the traditional process. Brian Thompson, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, told Marijuana Moment that they now intend to file the suit in district court “soon,” but he wasn’t able to provide an exact timeline.
“We express no opinion on the merits of WFM’s constitutional challenge, nor to its right to pursue this challenge in district court,” the justices wrote. “However, WFM’s claim does not present an appropriate basis on which to invoke this Court’s original jurisdiction. Even if it did, WFM has wholly failed to establish that urgency or emergency factors make litigation in the trial courts and the normal appeal process inadequate.”
Dave Lewis, policy advisor to the pro-legalization New Approach Montana, said in a press release that this “was an easy decision for the Montana Supreme Court.”
“At best, this lawsuit was a frivolous longshot,” he said. “At worst, it was an intentional effort to create confusion right before the election.”
The measure in question would establish that adult-use marijuana system. The lawsuit did not target a separate, complementary initiative that would specify that only those 21 and older could participate in the legal market.
It is the case that state statute says citizens “may enact laws by initiative on all matters except appropriations of money and local or special laws” and that the initiative does allocate cannabis tax revenue to certain programs. But prior measures that have appeared on the state’s ballot have done so as well.
Under the proposal, half of the public revenue generated from marijuana sales would go toward environmental conservation programs—a provision that earned the campaign key endorsements last month.
The initiative is already on the ballot and voting has started, so presumably if the court had sided with the plaintiffs, the votes simply wouldn’t have been counted or implementation would have been prevented. It is also possible that a court could rule that monies raised by legal cannabis sales under the initiative would simply into the state’s general fund instead of toward the specific programs delineated in its current text.
“We’re receiving strong support from voters across the state,” Lewis, who is a former Republican state senator and former budget director for three Montana governors, said. “Instead of making a coherent argument against the initiatives, our opponents tried to deprive Montanans of their constitutional right to a citizen initiative process.”
“Our opponents are desperately throwing everything at the wall in the hope that something sticks,” he added. “They’re resorting to fear tactics and misinformation because they know that a majority of Montana voters are ready to vote yes on legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana for adults 21 and over.”
In neighboring Nebraska, the state Supreme Court did rule last month that a measure to legalize medical cannabis that had qualified for the November ballot could not proceed because it violated the state’s single-subject rule for ballot initiatives.
Recent polling indicates that Montana voters are positioned to approve the legalization proposal. Forty-nine percent of respondents in a survey released last week said they support the policy change, with 39 percent opposed and 10 percent remaining undecided.
This story has been updated to include comment from Thompson.
Read the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling on the marijuana challenge and the original lawsuit below: