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.
Wisconsin Governor Blasts Lawmakers For Not Legalizing Medical Marijuana Despite Public Support
The governor of Wisconsin called out state lawmakers on Wednesday for declining to pass legislation legalizing medical marijuana despite widespread public support for the policy.
“When more than 80 percent of our state supports medical marijuana…and elected officials can ignore those numbers without consequence, folks, something’s wrong,” Gov. Tony Evers (D) said during his annual State of the State address.
Watch Evers’s comments about public support for medical cannabis below:
He also cited contrasting public support support and lack of legislative action on issues such as expanding Medicaid and universal background checks for gun purchases.
While Evers had included both marijuana decriminalization and medical cannabis legalization in his budget proposal last year, Republican leaders stripped those policies from the plan. It’s not clear if he’ll attempt to pursue the policies through the budget again this year, or if lawmakers would be more inclined to support reform than the last round.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D) recently said she hopes that the legislature came come together around certain bipartisan issues such as medical marijuana. But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said last month that there’s no such legislation he’s be willing to get behind.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) didn’t seem to close the door on the possibility of approving legalization legislation, however, but tempered expectations about when or how it would be achieved.
“It’s going to take a while,” he said last month. “It’s not like it’s a panacea that everybody thinks, ‘Oh, jeez this is an easy slam dunk.’ It’s a complicated issue that we want to get right.”
He also previously suggested that he’d only support a significantly limited program that would allow patients to access cannabis in pill form, raising doubts about whether Democratic lawmakers would be willing to advance such a reform.
While decriminalization didn’t come up in the governor’s speech, lawmakers did file a bill last year to remove criminal penalties for possession of up 28 grams of marijuana.
Not only is there broad public support for medical cannabis legalization based on polling, but local elections have also demonstrated that the people are ready for change. Three jurisdictions in the state voted in favor of non-binding resolutions expressing support for the legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes last year. That followed the approval of other cannabis ballot measures in 16 counties in 2018.
Evers reflected on the progress the state has made in the past year in a tweet sent during his speech, citing improvements to its hemp program as an example of the “many bipartisan successes” that have been achieved.
In my first State of the State Address, I called on the Legislature to set politics aside so we could get to work on the issues facing our state. One year later, I am proud that from improving our hemp program to expanding telehealth services, we had many bipartisan successes. pic.twitter.com/qCjGPWpzDW
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) January 23, 2020
Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D) weighed in on the State of the State speech as well, echoing Evers’s point about 80 percent support for medical cannabis.
Let’s review what WI wants:
✅ 80% support medical marijuana.
✅ 80% support universal background checks.
✅ 70% support accepting our Medicaid money.
Why does the majority ignore these issues? Partisan gerrymandering. #sots2020
— Dianne Hesselbein (@RepHesselbein) January 23, 2020
“Why does the majority ignore these issues?” she asked. “Partisan gerrymandering.”
Evers joined a growing list of governors who’ve discussed cannabis reform priorities for 2020.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legalization in his budget plan this week. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) called for a state-run cannabis model in her budget plan. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said it’s “high time” to legalize in her State of the State address and put ending prohibition on the agenda for the short 2020 session. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he wants to decriminalize cannabis possession and create a pathway for expungements in his annual address. And U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) pushed lawmakers to legalize cannabis to raise revenue to support a government employees retirement fund in his State of the Territory address.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Congressman Visits Marijuana Dispensary On Behalf Of Bernie Sanders’s Presidential Campaign
A congressman and staffers for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) presidential campaign toured a marijuana dispensary in Las Vegas on Monday and discussed the need for federal cannabis reform.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), who endorsed Sanders’s bid for the White House last week, shared photos on Twitter from the visit to NuWu Cannabis, a tribal-owned shop that features a consumption lounge and a drive-thru where consumers can buy marijuana products.
After years of an unjust War on Drugs, it’s time we work to ensure all communities can benefit from legalization—@BernieSanders marijuana legalization plan will do just that. pic.twitter.com/XFWmIZKuus
— Mark Pocan (@MarkPocan) January 21, 2020
“After years of an unjust War on Drugs, it’s time we work to ensure all communities can benefit from legalization—[Sanders’s] marijuana legalization plan will do just that,” the congressman tweeted.
While the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wasn’t scheduled to attend the shop and has since had to drop campaign stops in order to participate in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Pocan and Nevada campaign staff were there on his behalf, Tick Segerblom, a Clark County commissioner and former state senator who helped coordinate the event, told Marijuana Moment.
“We showed him around, explained on how it works, explained how it’s organized under state law,” Segerblom said of Pocan. “He said he’d never seen anything like it.”
The congressman also talked with business owners about the importance of social equity within the marijuana industry. He didn’t purchase or sample any cannabis products, however.
Segerblom said that while Sanders wasn’t able to attend this tour, he believes it’s important for the candidate to participate in such events and talk about his reform agenda to distinguish himself in the race.
“There’s a lot of people who will vote on this issue, and since [former Vice President Joe Biden] has come out against legalizing cannabis, I think it’s a very important issue for him to emphasize,” he said.
It’s fitting that Pocan would tour a tribal-owned cannabis business, as he was the chief sponsor of a 2016 bill that would have protected tribes from losing federal funds if they enact a legal marijuana program. Although the congressman represents Wisconsin, which doesn’t even have a comprehensive medical cannabis program let alone full adult-use legalization, he has cosponsored several cannabis reform bills this Congress, including two that would end federal prohibition.
State-legal dispensaries are getting a lot of high-profile attention from politicians lately. For example, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg visited a Las Vegas marijuana shop last year, Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) paid a visit to a California dispensary and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) toured a business that makes CBD-infused chocolates.
Photo courtesy of Rep. Mark Pocan.
New Vermont Bill Would Decriminalize Psychedelics And Kratom
Vermont lawmakers filed a bill on Wednesday that would decriminalize three psychedelic substances as well as kratom.
Rep. Brian Cina (P/D) introduced the legislation, which would amend state law to carve out exemptions to the list of controlled substances. Psilocybin, ayahuasca, peyote and kratom would no longer be regulated under the proposal.
Cina told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that he decided to pursue the policy change based on a “belief that I share with many people around the world that plants are a gift from nature and they’re a part of the web of life that humans are connected to.”
“Plants, especially plant medicines, should be accessible to people,” he said. “Use of plant medicine should be considered a health care issue, not a criminal issue.”
Whether plant medicines are used for treating pain or whether they’re used for seeking pleasure, that is a health care choice, and it’s a waste of society’s resources to criminalize healing practices that go back to the very roots of our humanity. https://t.co/hRDWWqa7yb
— Brian Cina (@briancinavt) January 22, 2020
While it remains to be seen whether the legislature will have the appetite to pursue the policy change, the bill’s introduction represents another sign that the psychedelics reform movement has momentum. Activists in about 100 cities across the U.S. are working to decriminalize a wide range of entheogenic substances, but the Vermont proposal is unique in that it’s being handled legislatively at the state level.
Text of the bill states that the four substances are “commonly used for medicinal, spiritual, religious, or entheogenic purposes.”
Larry Norris, cofounder of the national psychedelics reform group Decriminalize Nature, told Marijuana Moment that he’s especially encouraged by the use of the word “entheogenic,” a term that advocates are hoping to bring into the mainstream to more accurately describe the type of substances they want to decriminalize.
“It is exciting to see emerging interest at the state legislative level to support decriminalizing natural plants and fungi that are ‘commonly used for medicinal, spiritual, religious, or entheogenic purposes,'” he said. “The fact that the word entheogenic is making its way into the legislative lexicon speaks volumes for the shift in perspective that is happening nationwide.”
“While we were not involved in the drafting of this legislation, we look forward to offering any support and guidance to Representative Brian Cina in Vermont or any future state legislators aiming to decriminalize entheogenic plants and fungi,” Norris said.
Denver became the first city in the nation to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms last year, followed by a unanimous City Council vote in Oakland to make a wide range of psychedelics among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities. And while lawmakers have been comparatively slow to raise the issue in legislatures, activists in Oregon are working to put a therapeutic psilocybin initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot and, separately, a measure to decriminalize possession of all drugs with a focus on funding substance misuse treatment. In California, meanwhile, advocates are aiming to put psilocybin legalization before voters in November.
Part of the motivation behind the legislation was “recognizing that the decriminalization of mushrooms seems to be a next step in other places, and thinking that it might have greater success if we can make the point that in the path of decriminalization, the next step after cannabis is psilocybin mushrooms,” Cina said. “It was important for me to make a point about the significance of plants.”
“What it goes back to for me ultimately is that any kind of use of substances should be treated as a health care matter, not a criminal issue,” he said. “Whether those substances are used for treating pain or whether they’re used for seeking pleasure, that is a health care choice, and it’s a waste of society’s resources to criminalize a behavior that goes back to the very roots of our humanity.”
The bill currently has three cosponsors and has been referred to the Judiciary Committee. One of the cosponsors, Rep. Zachariah Ralph (P/D) told Marijuana Moment that he supports “the legalization of psychedelics because prohibition, generally, does not to work, and has continued to be enforced disproportionally against low income and minority communities.”
“Research at Johns Hopkins University and other facilities around the country on the medicinal use of psilocybin mushrooms are showing some promising results as a long term treatment of depression, addiction and anxiety,” he said. “This is especially important today as we deal with increased rates of suicides and drug overdoses across the nation and especially in Vermont.”
The bill’s introduction also comes as Vermont lawmakers express optimism about the prospects of expanding the state’s cannabis law to allow commercial sales.
While Gov. Phil Scott (R) has previously voiced opposition to allowing retail marijuana products to be sold, citing concerns about impaired driving, he recently indicated that he may be open to taxing and regulating the market. And according to top lawmakers in the state, the legislature is positioned to advance a cannabis commerce bill this session, with most members in favor of the reform move.
Vermont made history in 2018 by becoming the first state to pass marijuana legalization through the legislature, albeit with a noncommercial grow-and-give model. Now the question is whether lawmakers there will again make history by taking up psychedelics reform and decriminalizing these substances at the state level for the first time.
“We’ve decriminalized and then legalized and now might be regulating and taxing marijuana, which is a plant medicine,” Cina said. “But there are these other plant medicines that have been left behind.”
A Republican lawmaker in Iowa filed a bill to legalize certain psychedelics for medical purposes last year, but it did not advance.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.