A key House committee advanced a bill to federally legalize marijuana on Wednesday, clearing its path to a floor vote that leadership said will come on Friday.
While several amendments to the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act were submitted to the Rules Committee, most were not deemed in order for floor consideration. A manager’s amendment offered by the bill’s sponsor, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), will be attached under the rule approved by the panel, however.
This was the last step before the bill is taken up by the full chamber, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said in a briefing with reporters that it will start with debate on Thursday, a day ahead of the final vote.
Under the rule approved by the panel in a voice vote, the legislation will be closed to further amendments on the floor, and members defeated a Republican proposal to keep the bill open to changes.
There will be one hour of debate on the bill in the House, and that time will be “equally divided and controlled by the chair and ranking minority member” of the Judiciary Committee.
The bill’s consideration was a historic development for cannabis reform advocates. If the Democratic-controlled House ultimately approves the legislation, it would mark the first time that a chamber of Congress voted not just to protect state marijuana programs from federal interference but to formally deschedule the plant.
Watch the Rules Committee hearing on the MORE Act below:
Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) said in his opening remarks that the legislation “will reform the disastrous war on drug laws,” and its advancement “is a testament to the many Americans who have pushed Congress to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level for many years now.”
It also “brings restorative justice to so many Americans while providing resources to those harmed by the war on drugs,” he said.
“Some have wondered why we are acting on this now,” he said. “Well, I think it’s long past time and, in the words of Martin Luther King, ‘the time is always right to do what is right.’”
The MORE Act “really is designed to eliminate decades of bad law and decades of discrimination,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), a cosponsor of the bill, said. “The cannabis laws were arbitrarily added to our statutes back in 1970 without any study, without any real effort to determine whether there were benefits or detriments of whatever. And thousands and thousands and thousands of people have been incarcerated ever since.”
I’m glad to see the #MOREAct get a vote in the House. This comprehensive legislation will help modernize federal #cannabis policies to ensure fairness, equity & inclusion. Reforming federal cannabis law is long overdue & why I continue to push the #SAFEBanking & broader reforms. https://t.co/KuLIjBiRpk
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) December 2, 2020
Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) said that he opposes the legislation but agrees that the federal-state marijuana policy conflict needs to be resolved one way or another.
“It is easy to talk about these issues at town hall meetings,” he said. “It is hard to legislate on these issues.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said that it “is with a great sense of relief that I am supporting this long overdue measure and encourage the rest of my colleagues to do so as well.”
“This is not to promote drug use. It is not to undermine law enforcement. But rather to bring justice to millions of Americans,” she said.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), citing recent state-level votes to legalize cannabis and the consequences of prohibition, said this “is an opportunity for this Congress to move in the right direction, to listen to those concerns and to allow the states to move forward.”
“This is an opportunity for the federal government to get in step with what has happened in states across the country,” he said.
After the majority leader announced that the body would take up the MORE Act this week, the Rules Committee placed a revised version of the legislation, transmitted by Nadler, on its schedule.
While most the changes included in the Rules Committee Print are technical in nature, one significant revision concerns the proposed tax structure for cannabis sales outlined in the bill.
As originally drafted, the legislation would have imposed a five percent tax on marijuana products, revenue from which would be used in part to fund a grant program to support communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. In the most recent version, that language was removed and replaced with text that more closely reflects a separate descheduling bill, the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act.
The modified tax provisions of the MORE Act would make it so cannabis would be federally taxed at five percent for the first two years after implementation and then increased by one percent each year until reaching eight percent. After five years, taxes would be applied to marijuana products based on weight rather than price.
Nadler’s separate manager’s amendment stipulates that the heads of the Transportation Department and Coast Guard may continue to include marijuana in drug testing programs for safety-sensitive positions. It also clarifies that the bill’s expungement provisions only apply to “non-violent marijuana offenders” and bars so-called “kingpins” from obtaining expungements. Finally, the amendment from the Judiciary Committee chairman would direct the federal government to study the use of marijuana by military veterans, a provision that Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) said he pushed for.
My amendment to help our veterans is officially part of the #MOREAct!
It will ensure additional research is conducted on the efficacy of cannabis in treating PTSD, chronic pain, & other service-connected ailments affecting our vets.
Next stop the House Floor!
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) December 2, 2020
Several other lawmakers also submitted amendments for Wednesday’s meeting, but none were cleared for consideration on the floor.
An amendment filed by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) would have deleted provisions creating programs that provide grants for restorative justice and community reinvestment, as well as a new Cannabis Justice Office in the Department of Justice. It would also have eliminated a requirement to collect data on diversity within the cannabis industry. Gaetz is the only GOP House cosponsor of the MORE Act—and while he said this summer that he would be supporting it, he challenged these components.
An amendment from Rep. Justin Amash (L-MI) would have stricken the entire bill and replaced it with language that still deschedules cannabis and prohibits discrimination against marijuana consumers and businesses. However, it would have removed the creation of a federal cannabis tax and the programs its revenue would fund.
Speaker Pelosi refuses to allow votes on amendments to the House’s cannabis bill, including my amendment to strike new federal taxes/regulation that harm the goal of leaving cannabis policy to the states. Legislating is about ideas, deliberation, and compromise. Let us legislate.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) December 2, 2020
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) introduced an amendment that would have broadened the types of expenses covered by a provision providing waivers for cannabis business license application fees.
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC) proposed an amendment to delay the enactment of federal marijuana descheduling and other reforms until the Department of Transportation develops “best practices for the recognition and testing of drivers impaired by marijuana.”
Advocates celebrated the advancement of the historic cannabis legislation.
“Members of the U.S. House of Representatives on both sides of the aisle now have the opportunity and responsibility to come together and pass this important piece of legislation,” Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins said. “The prohibition and criminalization of marijuana has led to decades of injustice and devastating consequences, and it’s clear that a strong majority of Americans do not support the status quo. It is past time for Congress to take real action.”
Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that “the historic nature of today’s progress cannot be overstated.”
“For the first time in American history, the public will see the ‘People’s House’ vote to end the senseless, cruel, and racist policy of marijuana criminalization and prohibition,” he said.
Overall, the MORE Act would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions. The descheduling provisions would be retroactive.
The bill 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 clearances due to its use.
A new Cannabis Justice Office under the Justice Department would be responsible for distributing funds providing loans for small cannabis businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The bill also seeks to minimize barriers to licensing and employment in the legal industry.
While the bill still calls for the establishment of a Community Reinvestment Grant Program, the revised version Nadler filed would remove a line calling for it to specifically fund “services to address any collateral consequences that individuals or communities face as a result of the War on Drugs.”
Tax dollars appropriated to that program would instead more generally go to job training, legal aid for criminal and civil cases such as those concerning marijuana-related expungements, literacy programs and youth recreation and mentoring services, among other programs.
Advocates are optimistic about this latest development and the likely House vote, but it should be noted that its prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate this session are dim. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.
That said, a symbolic vote for legalization could send a strong signal to the incoming Biden administration.
Given Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.
A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.
That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”
For his part, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service released an analysis of the MORE Act last month, finding that the bill’s passage could “reverse” the current cannabis policy gap that exists between states and the federal government.
Numerous Republican members of Congress criticized House Democrats over the planned legalization vote, dismissing the significance of the issue and arguing that it’s an inappropriate time to take it up. They were publicly joined by one House Democrat, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), who said this “isn’t the right way” to advance reform and lawmakers should instead be focused on COVID-19 relief.
There were certain centrist Democrats like Lamb who also took issue with advancing the bill when the House first announced plans to hold a vote in the chamber in September. There were concerns about the optics of approving marijuana reform before passing another coronavirus bill, and they convinced leadership to postpone the vote.
That said, several of those same lawmakers ended up losing their seats on the same Election Day as voters in conservative states approved marijuana legalization ballot measures, calling into question their strategic thinking on the politics of cannabis.
This story was updated to include quotes and actions from the hearing.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Effort Runs Up Against New Republican Legislature
“Eventually it will get passed. But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
By Christian Wade | The Center Square
Marijuana advocates are continuing a push to legalize the drug for recreational use in New Hampshire, but the effort faces an unlikely path in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A bipartisan bill filed in the state House of Representatives this month would, if approved, legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and set up a system of regulation and taxation for the drug that would allow retail sales. It’s similar to proposals filed in previous legislative sessions, all of which have failed to win approval.
“The battle continues,” said Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, D-Concord, a primary sponsor of the bill. “We keep refining it and negotiating and trying to come up with something that could potentially get to the two-thirds vote needed to override the governor’s veto.”
The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed and would authorize regulated cultivation and retail sales. Adults would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. A state-run cannabis commission would set regulations and oversee the new industry. The proposal calls for a 9% tax on recreational pot sales.
But the measure faces a steep climb in the state legislature—which swung back to the GOP in the November 3 elections—not to mention the threat of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes legalization.
McWilliams acknowledges the measure faces long odds in the biennial legislative session and said lawmakers who support the effort lack the votes to override a Sununu veto. But she said the effort is building more support with every passing year.
“Eventually it will get passed,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
While marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, she said there’s a chance the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House could lift the federal prohibition on pot.
Nationally, 68 percent of Americans back the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll, which noted that support has been inching up steadily over the years.
To date, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs.
New Hampshire has often been described as a “cannabis island” with neighboring states and Canada allowing recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.
While the Granite State decriminalized marijuana possession in 2017, recreational growing and sales are not authorized.
In 2014, the Democrat-controlled House approved a legalization bill but it failed to pass the Senate. Similar proposals have been refiled every session, but have failed to gain traction.
The state has also allowed medical marijuana dispensaries since 2013, but cultivating the drug for personal use is still a felony.
Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would have allowed medical pot patients to grow their own supply, but Sununu vetoed it, citing public safety concerns.
This piece was first published by The Center Square.
American Medical Association Asks Court To Overturn Medical Marijuana Vote In Mississippi
Two medical associations are throwing their support behind a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medical marijuana ballot initiative that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved in November, arguing that it creates “risks to public health” and places a “burden” on physicians.
The American Medical Association (AMA) and its state affiliate, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), recently filed an amicus brief backing the legal challenge being considered by the state Supreme Court, which was brought by the city of Madison just days before the election.
The lawsuit argues that legalization proposal is invalid because of a state law that dictates the percentage of signatures required per district to qualify a ballot initiative.
While Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general have strongly criticized the suit, calling it “woefully untimely” and contesting the merits, AMA and MSMA are backing the challenge nonetheless.
“Making sure the constitutional amendment map is followed is always important, but given the nature of the initiative at issue and the substantial ramifications it poses for Mississippi’s public health and the medical community, particular care is warranted here,” the brief states, according to a blog post published by AMA on Friday.
The groups further argue that, outside of the statutory concerns outlined in the suit, the medical cannabis legalization initiative “poses significant risks to public health and puts a burden on Mississippi physicians.”
“While it is possible there may be beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects abound,” the brief states, adding “without question, the public health risks are immense.”
Additionally, because marijuana remains federally illegal, the voter-approved measure would put physicians in “quite the pinch,” it says. “Yet physicians will be expected by their patients (though perhaps not required by Initiative 65) to sign off on certifications to receive their supply. Perhaps no liability will lie under state law, but what about federal law?”
In fact, federal courts have ruled that doctors have a First Amendment right to discuss medical cannabis with their patients without risking federal sanction.
“As everyone knows, all it takes to file a lawsuit is a piece of paper and a filing fee, so even if a physician is judged correctly and immunity is appropriate, the matter will still have to be litigated,” the AMA and MSMA brief continues. “And with increased exposure and litigation comes increased costs, not least of which is rising professional liability insurance premiums.”
The legal challenge brought by Madison cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
Advocates see desperation in the court filing, with the medical associations now making a last-ditch effort to overturn the will of voters.
“These are cynical attempts to undermine the democratic process,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for NORML, said. “Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box.”
“Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes,” she said. “Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said “AMA’s position is woefully out of step with both public opinion and scientific consensus, as well as with the opinions of the majority of physicians.”
“It is regrettable that this organization would go on record in attempting to nullify the vote of a supermajority of Mississippi voters,” he said.
It’s also not especially surprising that these particular groups would join in this legal challenge given their earlier attempts to get voters to reject the reform initiative.
Weeks before the vote, AMA and MSMA circulated a sample ballot that instructed voters on how to reject the activist-led cannabis measure. The mailers said the associations were “asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
Ultimately, however, nearly 74 percent of Mississippi voters approved the legalization initiative.
It will allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. It includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA and MSMA for additional information about the brief, which has not yet been posted on the state court’s public docket, but representative did not immediately respond.
The Mississippi case is just one example of legalization opponents asking the courts to overturn the will of voters who approve marijuana reform.
In South Dakota, another legal challenge against the constitutionality of a legalization initiative is playing out. In this case, plaintiffs—with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem (R)—are claiming that the recreational marijuana measure violates a state statute requiring that proposals that appear on the ballot on deal with a single subject.
Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use attempted to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.
The plaintiffs then announced they were pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.
Separately, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in September that a medical marijuana legalization initiative could not appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge, even though activists collected enough signatures to qualify.
The court determined that the measure violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule that limits the scope of what can be placed on the ballot before voters. Activists have already introduced a new initiative that they say will satisfy the court’s interpretation of state law—and their also working on a broader adult-use legalization measure.
New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has released more details of his marijuana legalization proposal, including plans to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Following his State of the State address last week, in which the governor said enacting the reform could boost the economy while promoting social equity, he unveiled an outline of his agenda that provides more insights into what the state’s legal cannabis market could look like. Next, he’s expected to release the full budget proposal on Tuesday, which will contain much more detailed legislative language.
The State of the State Book released on Friday says Cuomo’s upcoming proposal would create an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the program, establish national standards and best practices to encourage responsible marijuana consumption and provide for “robust social and economic equity benefits to ensure New York’s law will create an egalitarian adult-use market structure that does not just facilitate market entry but ensures sustained market share for entrepreneurs in communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition.”
Notably, it also states that the plan will “correct past harms by investing in areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs, understanding that expunging past cannabis convictions helps to correct the injustice faced on the day that someone was arrested, but fails to correct the lasting harms that arrest has had on citizens, families, and communities.”
That’s important, as the governor in past years has pushed for marijuana tax revenue to be put into the state’s general fund, rather than specifically allocating resources for community reinvestment, as some lawmakers and advocates have urged.
That said, it remains to be seen exactly how the governor’s forthcoming budget will go about “investing” in communities that have been harmed by past prohibition enforcement and whether it will be deemed adequate by legislators and activists who have balked at his past proposals.
Cuomo has included legalization in his last two annual budget plans, but the issue has consistently stalled over details in negotiations.
That said, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If Cuomo were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
The governor’s new outline also talks about making investments in research into harm reduction and education campaigns to deter youth use and impaired driving.
“Cannabis legalization will create more than 60,000 new jobs, spurring $3.5 billion in economic activity and generating an estimated $300 million in tax revenue when fully implemented,” the document says.
A separate section describes plans to bolster the state’s hemp industry.
To accomplish that, Cuomo will call together a workgroup “composed of hemp growers, researchers, producers, processors, manufacturers, and trade associations to make recommendations for the further development of hemp as a multi-use agricultural commodity and a mature cannabinoid wellness market.”
“The hemp workgroup will explore ways to provide more opportunities for New York growers and manufacturers and work to help facilitate the development of safe New York products that will meet the needs of informed consumers,” the plan says. The group’s recommendations could build upon regulations for hemp and CBD that were developed last year.
But for many advocates, it’s recreational legalization that has the spotlight this session. And to that end, New York lawmakers have made comments in recent months that indicate they feel the reform is inevitable, despite differing opinions on the specifics.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance next year, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.
Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Legislators prefiled a bill to legalize cannabis in New York earlier this month. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 other lawmakers, is identical to a version she filed last year that did not advance.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.