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.
Bipartisan Lawmakers Push VA To Allow Medical Marijuana Access For Veterans ‘As Soon As Possible’
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must urgently institute a policy change to ensure that military veterans can access cannabis for therapeutic use, a bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers said in a new letter.
Writing to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Wednesday, the co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus urged the official to consider “a change in policy to allow access to medical cannabis fro VA patients” and to “act swiftly and implement this change as soon as possible.”
The lawmakers pointed to surveys showing high rates of opioid addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the veteran community.
“Research has shown that cannabis can be safe and effective in targeted pain-management. Additionally, cannabis has proven benefits in managing PTSD and other health issues, including multiple sclerosis (MS) and seizure disorders,” the letter states. “Despite its efficacy, antiquated bureaucratic red-tape continues to deny veterans these life-altering treatments.”
“Congress and several administrations have enacted various well-intentioned intervention attempts, however, over twenty veterans continue to die by suicide each day—it is past time we stop barring access from these innovative therapies. We therefore respectfully urge you to ensure no veteran can be denied medically prescribed cannabis treatments.”
The letter comes weeks after McDonough participated in a Veterans Day Q&A where he said that VA officials are “looking at” the possibility of an internal policy change and have discussed it with the White House and Department of Justice. The secretary also talked about being personally moved by stories from veterans who’ve found relief using medical marijuana.
“We’re trying to explore what more we can do,” he said at the time. “And I’ve talked to our friends in the rest of the federal government, including the Department of Justice, on what we can do on this, and with the White House.”
The Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chairs—Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), David Joyce (R-OH), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK)—want McDonough to speed up the policy change process.
“America’s veterans have risked life and limb to preserve our freedoms, so we must not allow the unnecessary politicization of medical cannabis to hinder their lifesaving therapies,” they wrote. “We stand ready to work with you and your administration in advancing these necessary treatments.”
While congressional lawmakers are working to advance legislation to end marijuana prohibition, McDonough’s department has resisted even modest proposals meant to promote veteran access and clinical research into the medical value of cannabis.
One such research bill was approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this month, despite testimony from the department opposing the reform. VA’s David Carroll told lawmakers that the legislation was overly prescriptive and argued that the department is already conducting robust research into marijuana.
Some had held out hope that VA would back the reform this session after the sponsor, Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA), said that he’d had a conversation with McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans.
On the Senate side, a coalition of lawmakers recently filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would federally legalize medical cannabis for military veterans who comply with a state program where they live. VA doctors would also be explicitly allowed to issue marijuana recommendations.
Read the letter to the VA secretary on marijuana access below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Biden Treasury Secretary Says ‘Of Course’ Marijuana Banking Would Make IRS’s Job Easier
The secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department said on Wednesday that freeing up banks to work with state-legal marijuana businesses would “of course” make the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) job of collecting taxes easier.
At a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) referenced recent comments from an IRS official about the “special type of collection challenge the IRS undertakes regarding tax collection from cannabis-related businesses forced to operate in cash only.”
“Do you agree if these business were simply allowed to access the banking system and didn’t have to transact business only in cash it would make the IRS job easier?” Perlmutter asked Secretary Janet Yellen.
“Yes, of course it would,” she replied matter-of-factly.
HAPPENING NOW: @SecYellen agrees allowing cannabis businesses to access the banking system would help the IRS do their job and enable them to better collect taxes from the industry. #SAFEBanking https://t.co/w23GdFPQFy
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) December 1, 2021
The congressman also talked about his bill—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—which has passed the House in some form five times now and would resolve the issue by protecting financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses.
Numerous financial, labor and insurance associations, as well as key lawmakers, are pushing the Senate to attach the measure to must-pass defense spending legislation, as the House already has. Bipartisan members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as senators representing Colorado, made the same request in recent letters.
While Yellen’s response was quick, it’s yet another example of a federal official recognizing the untenability of the status quo.
Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary under the Trump administration, repeatedly addressed the issue, saying the current policy conflict creates “significant problems” for IRS and financial regulators. It “creates significant risk in the communities for collecting this amount of cash. It’s problematic,” he said last year.
IRS, for its part, said in September that it expects the cannabis market to continue to grow, and it offered some tips to businesses on staying compliant with taxes while the plant remains federally prohibited.
With respect to the SAFE Banking Act, a bipartisan coalition of two dozen governors recently implored congressional leaders to finally enact marijuana banking reform through the large-scale defense legislation.
A group of small marijuana business owners also recently made the case that the incremental banking policy change could actually help support social equity efforts.
Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a recent Marijuana Moment op-ed that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications now.
Federal data shows that many financial institutions remain hesitant to take on cannabis companies as clients, however, which is likely due to the fact that the plant is a strictly controlled substance under federal law.
Texas Activists Turn In Signatures To Put Marijuana Decriminalization On Austin’s 2022 Ballot
Texas activists on Wednesday turned in signatures to place a marijuana decriminalization initiative on Austin’s 2022 ballot.
Ground Game Texas, a progressive organization that was established earlier this year, submitted more than 30,000 signatures to qualify the local measure to go before voters in the May 7 election next year.
While Austin, as well as other Texas cities like Dallas, have already independently enacted law enforcement policy changes aimed at reducing arrests for cannabis-related offenses by issuing citations and summons, the Austin Freedom Act of 2021 would take the reform a step further.
The initiative seeks to end arrests and citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession within Texas’s capital city. Also, it says police cannot issue citations for residue or paraphernalia in lieu of a possession charge.
The City Clerk will now verify that we submitted at least 20,000 valid signatures.
After that, the City Council will have the opportunity to adopt the new law directly, or place it on the May 7, 2022 “uniform election.”
— GroundGameTX (@GroundGameTX) December 1, 2021
“Thanks to the tireless efforts of on-the-ground organizers from Ground Game Texas and partner organizations, Austin residents will soon have the ability to make lasting change to our antiquated and racist criminal justice laws,” Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas, said in a press release. “With successful campaigns like these, Ground Game Texas will continue to empower and excite communities around progressive change—and deliver for the marginalized communities that too often get left behind.”
The measure would further prohibit the use of city funds to request or test cannabis to determine whether it meets the state’s definition of a lawful product. Hemp is legal in the state, creating complications for law enforcement, as they are now tasked with determining if seized cannabis products are in compliance with state statute.
Under the initiative, the execution of no-knock warrants would also be prohibited in the city—a policy that generated significant national attention last year after it led to Kentucky officers entering Breonna Taylor’s apartment and fatally shooting her in a botched drug raid.
Activists were joined by Austin City Council members Greg Casar and Vanessa Fuentes for Wednesday’s signature turn in.
Game Ground Texas previously attempted to place the measure on this year’s ballot, but they did not meet the signature turn-in deadline and shifted their attention to 2022.
This is huge news, a significant milestone for us in building long-term progressive organizing infrastructure to last beyond electoral cycles in TX.
Tremendously grateful to the organizers, volunteers, and staff who made this possible.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you! https://t.co/0rAG3ibq1M
— Julie Oliver (@JulieOliverTX) November 30, 2021
While the measure is now set to appear on the May ballot, it’s also possible that the Austin City Council could independently move to adopt the ordinance prior to the election.
“Austinites continue to work towards reducing the decades of negative impacts prohibition has caused by any means available,” Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During the interim, local actions like this create pressure for more action during the next legislative session. With a majority of Texans supporting the creation of a regulated cannabis market, it is important to continue pushing this conversation forward.”
Elsewhere in the state, activists in San Marcos launched a campaign in September to put marijuana decriminalization on the November ballot next year.
Ground Game Texas told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that it is also planning to place a cannabis decriminalization measure before voters in Killeen next fall.
There is no statewide, citizen-led initiative process that would enable advocates to put an issue like decriminalization or legalization on the Texas ballot. But at the local level, there are limited cases where activists can leverage home rule laws that allow for policy changes.
A recent poll found that a strong majority of Texans—including most Republicans—support even broader reform to legalize marijuana for adult use.
The survey from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University found that 67 percent of Texas residents back the broad reform. Fifty-one percent of participants who identified as Republican said they back legalization.
In Texas, drug policy reform did advance in the legislature in the latest session, but not necessarily at the pace that advocates had hoped to see.
Advocates remain disappointed, however, that lawmakers were unable to pass more expansive cannabis bills—including a decriminalization proposal that cleared the House but saw no action in the Senate.
The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform plank endorsing decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2018.
Another Texas poll that was released over the summer found that 60 percent of voters in the state support making cannabis legal “for any use.”
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.