For the first time in history, a congressional committee has approved a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition.
The House Judiciary Committee passed the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act in a 24-10 vote on Wednesday, setting the stage for a full floor vote.
The vote saw two Republicans—Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Tom McClintock (R-CA)—join their Democratic colleagues in support of the bill.
Debate on the bill generally followed two tracks. Republican lawmakers argued that the bill was being rushed and that it should be subject to additional hearings, while Democratic members responded that there’s been enough debate on the issue and that there’s no time for delay in beginning to reverse decades of harms of prohibition enforcement.
On the other hand, some GOP members who recognized that the status quo is untenable pushed for legislative action on a separate piece of bipartisan cannabis legislation—the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act—which does not contain social equity elements or formally remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and would simply leave cannabis policy up to the states, arguing that a scaled-down approach would fare better in the Senate.
“We may need something a little less than MORE,” Gaetz said.
The approved legislation, introduced by Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.
It would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearance due to its use.
“These steps are long overdue. For far too long we’ve treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of a matter of personal choice and public health,” Nadler said in his opening remarks. “Arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people at the federal level is unwise and unjust.”
“I’ve long believed that the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake,” he said. “The racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws has only compounded this mistake with serious consequences, particularly for minority communities.”
House and Senate members, and outside legalization advocates, cheered the bill’s committee approval.
“The passage of the MORE Act represents the first time that the Judiciary Committee has ever had a successful vote to end the cruel policy of marijuana criminalization,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “Not only does the bill reverse the failed prohibition of cannabis, but it provides pathways for opportunity and ownership in the emerging industry for those who have suffered most.”
Earlier, lawmakers that have advocated for cannabis reform held a press conference in advance of the vote on Tuesday to highlight the need for the federal policy change. And while Nadler said that it was possible that compromises could be made later in the legislative process, he doesn’t see the need to scale back the proposal’s reach at the onset and feels that bipartisan support will build around his bill.
He also told Marijuana Moment that he is optimistic the legislation will get a full floor vote before the end of the current Congress, and part of that confidence comes from the fact that his panel has been communicating with other committees where the bill has been referred in the hopes that they waive jurisdiction to expedite its advancement.
Watch the committee markup on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act below:
Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), ranking member of the committee, said he does “believe we need to change our attitudes and our processes because the federal government has completely failed in this area,” but that he doesn’t support the MORE Act.
Several amendments were introduced during the markup.
Nadler put forth an amendment to his own bill, which was adopted on a voice vote, that simply adds a findings section noting the racial disparities in prohibition enforcement and the lack of equity for communities targeted by the war on drugs in the legal cannabis industry.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) offered an amendment that would replace major provisions of the MORE Act with the STATES Act, but he didn’t request a roll call on it following its defeat on a voice vote. Nadler responded to the proposal by noting various issues such as banking and veterans’ access that the STATES Act doesn’t clearly address since it doesn’t deschedule cannabis.
“If we pass the bill that we want, and the Senate passes a different bill, we can negotiate,” the chairman said. “That’s what conference committees are for.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) filed an amendment that would expand the justice reinvestment provisions of the bill. The measure, which was meant to clarify that provisions aimed at helping people most harmed by the war on drugs are not limited to individuals but could also be used to invest in community-wide efforts such as mentorship programs, was approved on a voice vote.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) put forth a proposal, which was accepted on a voice vote, to require the Government Accountability Office and National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct a study examining the demographic characteristics of people convicted of federal marijuana offenses.
Buck filed a second amendment requiring GAO to study the societal impact of legalization, and it was rejected on a voice vote.
Much of the conversation during the markup, even among Republican members, involved recognition that prohibition isn’t working and federal policy should change regardless of personal opinions about cannabis.
“I don’t sing the praises of marijuana, I simply recognize the limitation of our laws and also the limits on my ability to try and run everybody’s lives for them,” McClintock (R-CA) said.
McClintock introduced an amendment that would have divided tax revenue generated from legal cannabis sales between local law enforcement and the general revenue fund within the Treasury Department, but it was ruled not germane, with the chairman saying its provisions fall under the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee.
The committee vote comes two months after the House approved a bill that would protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. That vote ignited a debate within advocacy circles about whether Congress should pursue incremental reform that might be more amenable to the Republican-controlled Senate first or instead focus their resources on passing comprehensive legalization legislation that addresses social equity from the outset.
Prior to the vote on the marijuana banking bill, several advocacy groups, including the ACLU, urged House leadership to delay the action until wide-ranging reform cleared the chamber.
Many observers expect the MORE Act to receive a favorable vote if it reaches the House floor. The bill’s fate in the Senate is much less certain, however, and may depend on the kind of compromises that Nadler said he hoped to avoid.
This markup garnered significant attention, as it represents the first of its kind that isn’t simply a debate about whether cannabis prohibition should be ended—which occurred in a House subcommittee over the summer—but an actual vote on a bill that would accomplish legalization.
This story was updated to include additional details from the markup.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Trinidad And Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
A bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Trinidad and Tobago was approved by the nation’s House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The recently introduced legislation would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis. A fixed fine would be imposed for possession of more than 30 but fewer than 60 grams, and it would not impact an individual’s criminal record if the debt is paid.
The proposal would also provide a pathway for expungements of prior cannabis convictions and allow individuals to cultivate up to four plants for personal use. An earlier version specified that they must be male plants, which do not produce flower, but that was amended after lawmakers received public input.
Representatives spent about eight hours debating the bill, and its approval comes after a series of amendments were made in committee. It’s expected to get a vote in the Senate later this month.
There are some provisions that don’t sit well with reform advocates. Specifically, the measure imposes new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.
The decriminalization bill is one part of a package of marijuana reform proposals that the government brought before Parliament last month. Another piece of legislation, the Cannabis Control Bill, would legalize cannabis for medical, research and religious purposes and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
That proposal was also discussed during the House session on Wednesday and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee, which is tasked with delivering a report on the bill by February 29, 2020, local journalist Clydeen McDonald reported.
The JSC on the Cannabis Control Bill will report to the @TTParliament by February 29, 2020. Trinidad & Tobago's government only required a simple, however, the bill received the support of the country's opposition in its amended form, the context here: https://t.co/o6ibF39KRS
— Clydeen Seeorne McDonald 🇹🇹 (@ClydeenMcDonald) December 12, 2019
Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have advocated for the policy changes, arguing that legalization and decriminalization will free up law enforcement resources, promote research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis and address racial justice.
“The history of cannabis is rooted in our country and, in fact, in our culture,” Al-Rawi said in his opening remarks. “Cannabis certainly be traced to several ethnic, religious and cultural traditions relevant to Trinidad and Tobago.”
“There are some who say legalize, there are some who say decriminalize, there are some who say do nothing at all, enhance the functions and penalties,” he concluded. “This is not an easy balance to be had, but commonsense tells us that it is by far past the time to make sure that the criminal justice system and the people most at risk are not exposed to the inevitability of just being processed through, after a whole lot of time, exposed to danger for a mere fine.”
The prime minister acknowledged that there’s ongoing debate about the extent to which the country should pursue reform and said “this matter is not a simple matter, but it also not a matter that we need to be frightened of.”
“We’re not going to please everybody by doing this,” he said. “There’s a body of opinion that says it shouldn’t be done at all, people should have to behave themselves. If we don’t do it, it is already an integral part of our societal behavior.”
“There are those who say we shouldn’t do it all, there are those who say we haven’t done enough, we should just legalize it and let the bush grow freely. That is not the position of the majority. The majority view in this country is we should decriminalize but we should not legalize. That may change in the future, I don’t know, but at this time, we decriminalize.”
The vote to advance these bills comes one year after the heads of 19 Caribbean nations announced they would be reviewing marijuana reform proposals. Since then, several regional countries such as St. Kitts have moved to change their country’s cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ParlView.
New Jersey Lawmakers Take First Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization On The 2020 Ballot
New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees held hearings on Thursday to discuss a resolution that would put the question of marijuana legalization before voters on the 2020 ballot.
The Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee debated the legislation at a morning hearing, which featured testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents, while a companion proposal was later discussed before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Both versions of the resolution have been scheduled for floor action in their respective chambers on Monday.
"If we are successful in placing this question on the ballot next year, the voters will make the final decision," says @JoeDanielsen17 on today's public hearing on legislation that would allow voters to decide to amend the State constitution to legalize adult-use cannabis pic.twitter.com/1Mlt8gcrzg
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Separately, legislators in the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a bill to revise and streamline the expungement process. It has also been listed for floor consideration on Monday.
The proposal to hold a cannabis referendum next November comes after top lawmakers failed to rally enough support to get legalization done legislatively, despite Gov. Phil Murphy (D) actively engaging in negotiations with the Senate and Assembly leaders. One of the main contentions was over how to tax marijuana sales.
“We had hoped to get this done legislatively, but that proved to be too tall of an order,” Assembly Judiciary Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D) said at the start of the Oversight panel hearing. “This is a seismic shift. I do not take that lightly.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
After Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) announced that lawmakers would be approaching legalization through a voter referendum, Murphy said that while he was disappointed, he felt confident New Jersey residents would do what the legislature was unable to accomplish.
In the meantime, the governor said he would work with both chambers to quickly pass more limited legislation decriminalizing cannabis possession.
“We believe prohibition has been a spectacular failure,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that regulated markets mitigate public safety and workplace risks that exist under prohibition.
Assembly Panel Hosts Public Hearing on @AnnetteQuijano, @jamelholley, @AswTimberlake and @AswMcKnight Measure Amend State Constitution to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis: https://t.co/IfEf98LO43 pic.twitter.com/h6gfT9CDwQ
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) December 12, 2019
Representatives from ACLU New Jersey, New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and Clergy for a New Drug Policy also testified in favor of the measure.
Marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein argued in his testimony that the language of the proposed ballot question should be revised to emphasize that it would end prohibition and remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis.
— Chris Goldstein (@freedomisgreen) December 12, 2019
In order to put changes to the state’s constitution on the ballot, as would be the case with the legalization referendum, the legislature must approve the proposal with a simple majority in two consecutive years, or once with a three-fifths supermajority.
As NJBiz reported, however, it’s unclear whether the two-year rule means it must be approved in two consecutive calendar years or two legislative sessions. The former would give lawmakers until the end of December to pass it the first time and the latter would give them until Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Senators Demand Update From DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications
A group of senators are pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
A letter from the lawmakers—led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and addressed to the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Office of National Drug Control Policy and Department of Health and Human Services—emphasizes the need to expand the supply of research-grade cannabis as more states opt to legalize the plant for medical or recreational use.
It notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin to approve additional marijuana growers and has since continually delayed that process. While the agency said in August that it is taking steps to make approvals, it argued that the volume of applications received requires it to develop alternative rules before issuing any new licenses.
It made that announcement just before a court deadline mandated that DEA take action in response to a lawsuit brought against it by researchers who had applied for approval to produce cannabis for studies. Because the agency gave the update, however, the suit was dismissed in October.
But the senators aren’t satisfied and wrote that they’re “requesting written guidance on how the DEA will make these licenses available to qualified researchers in a timely manner.”
“While millions of Americans are now lawfully able to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, there remains limited research on its therapeutic benefits,” the letter, sent on Wednesday, states. “With an ever-growing number of Americans consulting their doctors about marijuana treatment options for conditions such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and terminal illnesses, it is imperative that your agencies make a concerted effort to improve our understanding of cannabis, its potential health benefits, and its health risks.”
The senators also noted that the fact that cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act “is, in itself, a significant barrier to conducting research.”
“Hampering these research opportunities and discouraging qualified, independent researchers attempting to conduct studies on the benefits of medical marijuana is detrimental to states that wish to thoughtfully implement their own marijuana laws,” they argued. “This research is crucial to developing a thorough understanding of medical marijuana and would be invaluable to doctors, patients, and lawmakers across the nation.”
The letter lists five questions that the agencies are being asked to respond to by January 10.
The group wants the government to provide 1) the status and timeline of application approvals by DEA, 2) details on the existing supply of research-grade cannabis and whether additional varieties are being cultivated, 3) information on any plans to consider rescheduling marijuana, 4) a description of the application process and 5) particulars on any efforts to support research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis, particularly as an alternative to opioid painkillers.
“With millions of American adults having access to recreational marijuana and a growing number seeking the drug for medicinal purposes, the federal government is not providing the necessary leadership and tools in this developing field,” they wrote. “Evidence-based public policy is crucial to ensuring our marijuana laws best serve patients and health care providers.”
“Federal agencies have a unique opportunity to collaborate with one another to expand our nation’s understanding of marijuana’s potential to create safe and effective therapies,” they said.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also signed the letter.
Last week, DEA received a separate letter from a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate lawmakers urging them to change policy so that researchers can obtain marijuana from state-legal dispensaries. This would help resolve one problem that scientists have identified in the past, expressing frustration over a lack of diversity in the federal government’s cannabis supply.
One study found that the government’s marijuana is chemically more similar to hemp than what’s available in commercial markets.
DEA will likely find is useful to expand the number of cannabis manufacturers given the quota it released on how much marijuana it plans approve for cultivation in 2020: 3.2 million grams, which represents a 30 percent increase from this year’s quota.
Read the senators’ full marijuana letter below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.