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:
Louisiana Lawmakers Send Medical Marijuana Expansion And Cannabis Banking Bills To Governor’s Desk
Louisiana lawmakers sent bills to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program and to allow cannabis businesses to access banks to the governor’s desk over the weekend.
The expansion legislation—which the House of Representatives initially approved last month and cleared the Senate on last week with one amendment—would allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.
Because the Senate added language that requires dispensaries to record medical marijuana purchases in the state prescription monitoring program database, it had to be returned to the House for reconsideration. The final version was approved by the body in a 74-16 vote on Sunday and is now being transmitted to Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for signature or veto.
As originally drafted, the bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R) would have simply added traumatic brain injuries and concussions to the list of conditions that qualify a patient for a marijuana recommendation. But it was amended in a House committee to add several other conditions as well as language stipulating that cannabis can be recommended for any condition that a physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
Under current law there are only 14 conditions that qualify patients for the program.
Bagley told Marijuana Moment he’s “excited” that patients “can now have another choice for pain relief.”
“This entire process for me has been to help people in pain that had no other choice but opioids,” he said. “My seat on the Traumatic Head and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund has opened my eyes to people who are constantly in pain. I’m proud to have lead the charge to help people in need, not only in District 7, but the state of Louisiana.”
Another bill headed to Edwards’s desk would protect banks and credit unions that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by state regulators. That measure cleared the Senate on Friday by a tally of 29-0 after being approved by the House last month.
Lawmakers also passed a House bill to provide legal protections for doctors who recommend medical marijuana as well as authorized medical facilities that have cannabis patients in their care. The vote was 34-2 in the Senate on Friday, and a committee amendment meant it had to head back to its originating chamber, which made an 80-11 vote of concurrence on Sunday, sending the legislation to the governor.
A House-passed resolution to create “a task force to study and make recommendations relative to the cannabis industry projected workforce demands” was given final approval by the Senate on Sunday in a vote of 28-6. Text of the legislation states that “there is a need to study the workforce demands and the skills necessary to supply the cannabis industry with a capable and compete workforce, including physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners.”
Also on Sunday, the House voted 95-0 to reject changes to a bill to establish rules for industrial hemp and CBD products. On Friday, the Senate had voted 34-0 to advance the legislation while adding an amendment allowing regulators to obtain criminal records of applicants. The House speaker, who is the lead sponsor of the legislation, took exception to the language and is now seeking a bicameral conference committee to reach an agreement.
Bagley, the medical cannabis expansion legislation sponsor, had also introduced a House-passed bill to provide for delivery services to patients, but he voluntarily withdrew it from Senate committee consideration last month and told Marijuana Moment it’s because he felt the medical marijuana expansion legislation would already allow cannabis products to be delivered to patients like other traditional pharmaceuticals.
The delivery bill would have required a government regulatory body to develop “procedures and regulations relative to delivery of dispensed marijuana to patients by designated employees or agents of the pharmacy.”
It remains to be seen if regulators will agree with Bagley’s interpretation, as doctors are still prohibited from “prescribing” cannabis, and marijuana products are not dispensed through traditional pharmacies. That said, state officials recently released a memo authorizing dispensaries to temporarily deliver cannabis to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s possible they will be amendable to extending that policy on a permanent basis.
The Senate was also slated to consider separate House bills adding specific new medical cannabis qualifying conditions over the weekend but did not bring them up. It’s not clear what the practical impact of those proposals would be if Bagley’s broader measure allowing doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any debilitating malady is enacted.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New Congressional Resolution Condemns Police Brutality And War On Drugs
Twelve House members introduced a resolution on Friday condemning police brutality in light of the recent law enforcement killings of two black individuals that have galvanized mass protests. The measure specifically notes the racial injustices of the war on drugs.
The resolution is partly motivated by the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, where a police officer suffocated him to death, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, where she was fatally shot by police during a botched drug raid.
Protests have erupted across the U.S. this week, with calls for justice and law enforcement accountability. The new House measure, if adopted, would formally align the body with that sentiment, condemning police brutality, racial profiling and excessive use of force.
The drug war has contributed to those problems, the lawmakers said, with people of color being more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than white people despite similar rates of consumption.
The “system of policing in America, and its systemic targeting of and use of deadly and brutal force against people of color, particularly Black people, stems from the long legacy of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the War on Drugs in the United States and has been perpetuated by violent and harmful law enforcement practices,” a provision of the resolution states.
In addition to condemning “all acts of brutality, racial profiling, and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and calls for the end of militarized policing practices,” the resolution urges the Justice Department to investigate individual cases of police violence and racial profiling and establish all-civilian review boards to provide community oversight of policing.
The measure also “calls for the adoption of sound and unbiased law enforcement policies at all levels of government that reduce the disparate impact of police brutality and use of force on Black and Brown people and other historically marginalized communities.”
Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Karen Bass (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) led the resolution. Other cosponsors include Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Katherine Clark (D-MA), James McGovern (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA).
The resolution @Ilhan & I are introducing today aims to ensure that those responsible are held accountable and calls for systemic reforms at all levels of government to end the scourge of police brutality in our society. #SaveLivesNow https://t.co/8vlMiY4j83
— Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (@RepPressley) May 29, 2020
“From slavery to lynching to Jim Crow, Black people in this country have been brutalized and dehumanized for centuries,” Omar said in a press release. “The war on drugs, mass criminalization, and increasingly militarized police forces have led to the targeting, torture and murder of countless Americans, disproportionately black and brown.”
We can’t just continue to watch our communities be brutalized by the police.
I am proud of my sisters in Congress for joining me in condemning police brutality and look forward passing this resolution. https://t.co/qeSaRB5dMZ
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 29, 2020
“The murder of George Floyd in my district is not a one-off event. We cannot fully right these wrongs until we admit we have a problem,” she said. “As the People’s House, the House of Representatives must acknowledge these historical injustices and call for a comprehensive solution. There are many steps on the path to justice, but we must begin to take them.”
Advocacy groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Drug Policy Alliance, Color of Change, ACLU chapters and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have endorsed the resolution.
This measure is being introduced one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor.
In that letter, the legislators cited prior excessive force incidents with two of the three officers involved in Taylor’s shooting—as well as prior alleged improper enforcement by the department’s SWAT team in a botched marijuana raid—as evidence of the need for an investigation.
“For too long, Black and brown bodies have been profiled, surveilled, policed, lynched, choked, brutalized and murdered at the hands of police officers,” Pressley said about the new resolution. “We cannot allow these fatal injustices to go unchecked any longer. There can be no justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or any of the human beings who have been killed by law enforcement, for in a just world, they would still be alive. There must, however, be accountability.”
Joe Biden’s New Disability Plan Includes Boosting Medical Marijuana Research
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s new plan for people with disabilities involves promoting research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana.
The former vice president, who remains opposed to broader cannabis legalization, said he will “ensure people with disabilities have a voice in their government and are included in policy development and implementation.” That includes cannabis policy.
“A Biden Administration will prioritize the research needed to advance science-based federal policies related to the use of marijuana for medical conditions, chronic pain, and disabilities,” the plan, released on Thursday, states.
Thirty years ago, I proudly cosponsored the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. It was an enormous step forward, but there's more work to do. So today, I’m releasing my plan to achieve full participation and equality for people with disabilities: https://t.co/psuNvKzYej
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) May 28, 2020
This is another example of Biden featuring marijuana issues in broader policy platforms. Earlier this month, he released a plan on racial justice that included his existing modest cannabis reform proposals for decriminalization and automatic expungements.
But while advocates agree with the need for those policy changes, they’ve remained disappointed about Biden’s ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization—something they argue should go hand-in-hand with the social justice principles he’s touted.
The presumptive nominee has argued that more research needs to be done on the potential risks and benefits of marijuana before he’s be open to legalization. In a recent interview, a host pushed back and said, anecdotally, there have been decades of research given that millions of people consume cannabis.
Biden agreed and said he knows “a lot of weed smokers” but, in agreeing to that premise, he seemed to signal the people he knows who consume marijuana have demonstrated the need to maintain prohibition.
While he’s given no indication that he’s willing to embrace legalization ahead of the November election, some are holding out hope that a criminal justice task force he formed with former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will push him in that direction. Most of the members of that group support legalization.
The former vice president does support legalizing medical marijuana, rescheduling cannabis under federal law, decriminalizing the plant, providing for automatic expungements and allowing states to set their own laws.