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.
Idaho Senator Files Bill To Decriminalize Drug Possession
A new bill filed by an Idaho senator would decriminalize possession of currently illegal drugs in the state, though it also contains a provision that advocates consider troubling, allowing the government to involuntarily commit people convicted of certain offenses to treatment.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne (D) introduced the legislation, which would remove criminal penalties for drug use and possession by “requiring intention to deliver for criminal trafficking.”
Burgoyne told Marijuana Moment the bill has been referred to the Judiciary and Rules Committee, where Chairman Todd Lakey (R) has agreed to hold a hearing on it.
“We have too much of a focus on prosecution and punishment and not enough on treatment,” Burgoyne said in a separate interview with KTVB. “We don’t have a functioning mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment capability for the needs of our people. We need new strategies, how we draw the lines between what is criminal conduct and what is not criminal conduct when it comes to drug possession and usage.”
The bill sets different possession thresholds for different drugs. Having just two grams of heroin could be considered trafficking, while for cocaine and methamphetamine, the amount is set at 28 grams. One pound of marijuana, or 25 plants, could be treated as a trafficking offense.
Any amount of LSD could be considered a trafficking offense, as could any amount of a “simulated controlled substance,” possibly referring to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Using drugs with friends would also be harshly penalized, as “sharing or providing a controlled substance for use by another person shall constitute intent to deliver.”
“This will reduce arrests, but how much is very hard to predict,” Burgoyne told Marijuana Moment. “Unfortunately, illegal drug use, even in private, is too often accompanied by the commission of other crimes, which my bill does not excuse and which could lead to arrest.”
Burgoyne’s bill would also allow people using drugs to be “placed in protective custody” or “admitted for community-assisted behavioral health treatment.” This would apply to people under the influence and in various circumstances, such as being pregnant, posing a risk to themselves or others or in withdrawal.
But existing research on mandatory drug treatment suggests it is not helpful for people with substance use disorder. A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal, for example, found that when people are ordered to undergo drug treatment without their informed consent, the practice does more harm than good and does not reduce their drug use. The researchers explained that harm reduction efforts like syringe exchanges and drug education were more effective.
“Although there is some theoretical danger of adverse consequences to mandated drug treatment, we already mandate it for prisoners with drug issues,” Burgoyne said. “I’d like to shift treatment out of our jails and prisons to a more appropriate place. Furthermore, a civil commitment is not an easy thing to obtain, and I think our courts will be conservative in how they handle them.”
If the senator’s legislation passes, it remains to be seen what effect it would have on drug arrest rates in Idaho. According to the FBI, in 2017 Idaho had 8,432 arrests for “drug abuse violations,” which is a little over 16 percent of all arrests that year.
Burgoyne’s reform proposal comes amid a growing national debate about the value of decriminalizing drug use over more arrests. Last year in May, Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize personal use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms. Oakland’s City Council followed the next month by decriminalizing a wide range of psychedelics.
Advocates are also raising the issue on the national stage. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) proposed decriminalizing drug consumption in November. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed decriminalizing drug possession and reducing sentences. His primary opponent, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), recently called for legalizing and regulating drugs in order to treat substance misuse as a public health issue.
Photo coutersy of Markus Spiske.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Pushes For Marijuana Legalization In Annual Speech
The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) repeated his call for marijuana legalization in his annual State of the Territory address.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who called the legislature into a special session last month to begin taking up cannabis reform legislation, stressed that establishing a commercial marijuana market would bring in needed tax revenue to support a variety of government programs.
The proposed amendment to the territory’s existing medical cannabis law, which Bryan signed last year, would allow adults 21 and older to obtain a license from the government in order to purchase and cultivate marijuana. It would also promote participation in the industry by small farmers and local businesses, as well as providing for automatic expungements of prior cannabis convictions.
“Most importantly, it creates a taxing regime for the local industry that will generate higher revenues than the current law allows,” he said in the speech last Monday, noting that tax revenue will be distributed between the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) fund (75 percent), implementation of regulations (20 percent) and services for senior citizens (5 percent).
“The revenues generated from this industry can benefit the system as a direct contribution,” the governor said. “However, the goal is to create a funding stream that is reliable enough to ultimately support a revenue bond that can provide a needed cash infusion to the system.”
Watch Bryan’s marijuana comments, first reported by Vibe High, about 36:24 into the video below:
“This is by no means the panacea or final solution for the GERS crisis, but a small part of a larger solution,” he continued. “It begins the process of generating the new revenues required to stave off the insolvency of the System. It takes existing policy, approved by this body, and leverages it to support this critical area of need.”
“We must acknowledge the opportunities that regulated expansion of this industry can bring to the territory and the potential benefits to the GERS,” he said. “I urge this body to take the necessary action to approve the amending legislation we have proposed.”
Bryan’s proposal calls for a 30 percent tax on marijuana sales, with revenue expected to be upwards of $20 million annually. His administration is also expecting the policy change to stimulate tourism, and visitors interested in participating in the market would be charged a $10 per day fee to access legal cannabis.
This year has seen several governors voice support for marijuana reform during their high-profile annual addresses and in legislative agendas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) reaffirmed his commitment to legalization in his State of the State speech and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) pledged to pursue decriminalization, for example.
In New Mexico, the governor included legalization in her 2020 agenda, and lawmakers followed suit by filing a cannabis reform bill on Thursday. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) proposed legalizing marijuana through a state-run model in a budget proposal released on Thursday.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.
Tulsi Gabbard Endorses Legalizing Drugs
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is calling for the U.S. to legalize currently illicit drugs.
“If we take that step to legalize and regulate, then we’re no longer treating people who are struggling with substance addiction and abuse as criminals and instead getting them the help that they need,” the 2020 presidential candidate said at a campaign stop in Merrimack, New Hampshire on Friday.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo element courtesy of Lorie Shaull.