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:
Austin Police Chief Says Marijuana Arrests Will Continue Despite City Council Vote
Chief Brian Manley said he would continue to enforce marijuana laws the day after the city council unanimously approved stopping arrests and tickets for low-level cases.
The day after the Austin City Council approved a resolution to stop arresting or ticketing people for most low-level marijuana possession offenses, the police chief made clear he had no plans to do so.
“[Marijuana] is still illegal, and we will still enforce marijuana law if we come across people smoking in the community,” Chief Brian Manley said during a news conference Friday afternoon.
Though cracking down on those in possession of small amounts of marijuana has never been a priority for the department, he said, police will continue to either issue tickets under the city’s “cite-and-release” policy or arrest people if officers “come across it.”
The difference, according to City Council member and resolution sponsor Greg Casar, is that the council’s move now guarantees those actions will come with no penalty. Tickets will be meaningless pieces of paper and any arrests will result in a quick release with no charges accepted from prosecutors, he told The Texas Tribune after the news conference.
“What has changed since yesterday is that enforcement, almost in virtually all cases, is now handing someone a piece of paper with no penalty or no court date,” Casar said.
The move by the City Council came as a direct result from Texas’ new hemp law which complicated marijuana prosecution across the state. Last summer, when lawmakers legalized hemp, they also changed the definition of marijuana from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant.
Many prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, now won’t accept pot cases based on look and smell alone, requiring lab testing to determine THC levels before accepting a case. Such testing is not yet available in public crime labs, though some counties and cities have spent money to obtain test results from private labs.
The council’s resolution prohibited using city funds or personnel to conduct such testing in non-felony marijuana cases. It also directed the elimination, to the furthest extent possible, of arrests or citations for cannabis possession. As Manley also noted, the resolution clarifies it can’t technically decriminalize marijuana, since that is state law.
The resolution gave the city manager until May 1 to report back to the council on how police were trained in this new resolution, and Casar said he hopes Manley reviews his policies before then.
Manley said in the news conference that he would continue to review the resolution, as well as police policies.
But, he assured, “a City Council does not have the authority to tell a police department not to enforce a state law.”
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Andrew Yang Wants To Legalize Psychedelic Mushrooms For Military Veterans
Andrew Yang says he wants to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for military veterans to help them combat mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During a town hall event at an Iowa college on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked whether he would take initiative and allow veterans to access medical marijuana if elected. Yang replied he “will be so excited to be that commander-in-chief” that he would not only end federal cannabis prohibition but would go one step further by legalizing the psychedelic fungus for veterans as well.
“We need to get marijuana off of the Controlled Substances Act and legalize it at the federal level, make it freely available,” he said. “I say this because I’ve talked to hundreds of veterans and other Americans who benefit from marijuana as a pain relief treatment, and it’s much less deadly than the opiates that many, many people are using for the same conditions.”
“I’ve talked to veterans who’ve also benefited from psilocybin mushrooms,” he added. “They said it was the only thing that actually has helped combat their PTSD. I’m for legalizing psilocybin mushrooms for veterans as well. Pretty much if it’s going to help a veteran, we should make it easier, not harder, for them to get access to it.”
Yang’s drug policy reform platform is unique in that respect. While the majority of Democratic candidates support marijuana legalization, he’s pushed unique proposals such as decriminalizing possession of opioids and making psilocybin mushrooms “more freely available” for therapeutic purposes. The candidate also wants to invest federal funds in safe injection facilities where individuals can use prohibited drugs in a medically supervised environment and receive help getting into treatment.
He hasn’t gone so far as embracing the decriminalization of all drugs, as former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has, however.
That said, Yang did signal that he’s open to legalizing and regulating “certain drugs” beyond cannabis, which he argued would disrupt international drug cartels. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) recently said she backs “legalizing and regulating” currently illegal controlled substances to protect public safety and combat the illicit market.
At the Iowa town hall, Yang went on to say that he’s particularly interested in legalizing marijuana, and he again pledged to “pardon everyone who’s in jail for a non-violent marijuana-related offense because they shouldn’t be in jail for something that’s frankly legal in other parts of the country.”
“And I would pardon them all on April 20, 2021, high-five them on the way out of jail and be like, ‘things got a lot better in the last year,'” he said, referencing the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20.
Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Tom Steyer Calls For Marijuana Legalization And Opioid Decriminalization
Billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer is calling for the legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of opioid possession.
In a criminal justice reform plan released on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate laid out a vision for ending the drug war, which he said has contributed to mass incarceration and is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.
“Tom believes we must end the failed War on Drugs. Based on the flawed idea that incarceration is the answer to addiction, federal and state elected officials passed severe sentencing laws that encouraged incarceration for low-level drug offenses,” the plan states. “Unfortunately, communities of color were and continue to be disproportionately affected and targeted by these laws, even when other ethnicities were committing the same drug crimes at the same rates.”
Today @TomSteyer announced a new criminal justice plan to:
– Reform the juvenile system
– Improve prison conditions
– Redirect funds to education
– Eliminate cash bail
– Release more rehabilitated people
– End the war on drugs
And much more! 👉 https://t.co/3VYRw7ioXB
— TeamTom 🌎 (@TomHQ) January 24, 2020
There are six proposals in the drug war section, including legalizing cannabis and expunging prior marijuana convictions, ending mandatory minimum sentences and empowering judges to use more discretion in non-violent drug cases, diverting people convicted of drug offenses to treatment or drug court, ending the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, sealing the records of certain drug convictions and decriminalizing opioids while investing $75 billion in treatment programs and holding pharmaceutical companies accountable.
Steyer specifically endorsed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY) Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would deschedule cannabis, expunge prior convictions and set aside tax revenue to support communities most impacted by the drug war.
“Policing marijuana use has led to too many unfair incarcerations and predominantly impacted communities of color,” the plan says. It also criticizes then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s 2018 move on “repealing leniency given to states for marijuana laws.”
Today, I'm meeting with formerly incarcerated individuals to talk about transforming the criminal justice system through police accountability, ending cash bail, providing adequate funding to re-entry programs, and so much more. pic.twitter.com/m9lDEKWwwU
— Tom Steyer (@TomSteyer) January 23, 2020
“A Steyer Administration will also open equitable pathways to banking for marijuana businesses,” it continues. “The federal government—including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—should not be a barrier to marijuana businesses receiving support from their local banks.”
“Incarceration is not the answer to addiction, and low-level drug offenses should not carry a severe sentence. Tom will legalize marijuana, let states pass their own policies, expunge past records, and direct the federal government to open banking services to the marijuana industry. Tom’s administration will end the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences, decriminalize opioid possession, and invest $75 billion to address the opioid crisis.”
The opioid decriminalization proposal is similar to that of entrepreneur Andrew Yang, another 2020 candidate who said removing criminal penalties for possessing the substance is necessary in order to help get people into treatment and curb the opioid crisis. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) have gone further, calling for the decriminalization of all drug possession and, in Gabbard’s case, also the legalization and regulation of illicit drugs.
“Tom supports decriminalizing small amounts of opioid possession for personal use at the federal level,” the plan states. “He will address the opioid crisis through $75 billion in new funding over ten years to resource state and local treatment programs, hold big pharmaceutical corporations and their executives accountable, and strongly enforce laws that end the illicit distribution and sale of opioids.”
This is a notable development for Steyer, who hasn’t discussed drug policy reform as much as many other candidates in the race and whose views on decriminalization of substances beyond marijuana were previously unknown.
Last year, Steyer said he supported creating a national referendum process so that Americans can made decisions about a wide range of policy issues, including cannabis legalization.
He also previously discussed his support for ending marijuana prohibition and providing the industry with access to banking, saying that he and his wife wanted to provide financial services to minority- and women-owned cannabis firms through their community bank, but federal prohibition means the business would be put at risk if they did that.
Steyer’s new plan also calls for juvenile justice reform, ending cash bail, banning facial recognition technology in policing, demilitarizing law enforcement, improving prison conditions and eliminating the death penalty, among other reforms.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.