The Vote

The House Judiciary Committee plans to vote this week on legislation that takes marijuana off the federal government’s list of controlled substances. On Thursday, the legislators will consider the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, shepherded by the New York Democrat, Rep. Jerry Nadler. The Act has 66 co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats. The MORE Act, if passed, would take away the federal government’s marijuana laws, descheduling cannabis. Since many low-level marijuana crimes would no longer be illegal, it also creates a way for those convictions to be expunged. It also aims to provide for reinvestment of funds to aid people and communities most directly harmed by the War on Drugs.  The bill has extremely strong language in its arguments, beginning: The Congress finds as follows: (1) The communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition are benefiting the least from the legal marijuana marketplace. (2) A legacy of racial and ethnic injustices, compounded by the disproportionate collateral consequences of 80 years of cannabis prohibition enforcement, now limits participation in the industry. The language in the MORE Act argues that legal cannabis sales are projected to reach $23 billion by next year and $40.5 billion by 2025, while enforcement of the prohibition of cannabis costs taxpayers $3.6 billion annually and lands 600,000 people in handcuffs each year. Plus, Rep. Nadler’s bill points out, Black and Latino men are more than 6.5 times more likely to receive a Federal conviction for the simple possession of marijuana than White people, even though overall use is the same between White people and people of color. People of color have also been given sentences that are 13.1% longer than those imposed on White people.

Programs Created Under The Bill

The Act would mean the creation of the Community Reinvestment Grant Program, overseen by the Cannabis Justice Office. That money would be doled out to help people impacted by the War on Drugs by creating:

  • Job training programs 
  • Services to help people re-enter society after they’re released from prison
  • Legal aid to help people expunge their cannabis convictions, be they civil or criminal
  • Literacy programs
  • Programs for youth recreation and mentoring
  • Health education programs

There would also be an Equitable Licensing Grant Program and Cannabis Restorative Opportunity Program. The board overseeing those programs would have to be “reflective of the racial, ethnic, economic, and gender composition of the eligible State or locality.” The MORE Act argues that, “Historically disproportionate arrest and conviction rates make it particularly difficult for people of color to enter the legal cannabis marketplace, as most States bar these individuals from participating.” That, combined with the difficulty cannabis businesses have in accessing bank loans, has proven catastrophic for people of color. “Fewer than one-fifth of cannabis business owners identify as minorities and only approximately 4 percent are black,” the Act states.  The Grant created by the Act would go to minimize barriers for licensing or employment for people who were particularly harmed by the War on Drugs who are trying to enter the cannabis industry. Those individuals who have spent at least five years in the past decade 250% below the federal poverty line would have their licensing fees waived.  The MORE Act also points out that cannabis possession has been used time and time again to deport immigrants. In 2013, the bill says, “Simple cannabis possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation for any offense and the most common cause of deportation for drug law violations.” If the Act were to become law, it would protect people from being deported because of cannabis possession.  Right now, although it allows individual states to regulate the product as voters in each region see fit, the federal government itself considers marijuana on par with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Those are all Schedule I drugs, meaning they are, in the DEA’s eyes, “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Schedule II drugs have “a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence” and include things like cocaine and meth. The MORE Act passed in Congress last year but failed in the Republican-controlled Senate. This time around, with Democrats claiming a slim majority in both houses of Congress, advocates for marijuana reform are hopeful that this could be the tipping point. The Act clarifies that once its enacted, the Attorney general must have removed marijuana and tetrahydrocannabinols from the controlled substances list before 180 days pass.  Republicans filed a counter-bill to the MORE Act in May, which would deschedule marijuana but doesn’t consider or address the social equity components of legalization that Rep. Nadler’s bill accounts for. It’s called the Common Sense Cannabis Reform for Veterans, Small Businesses, and Medical Professionals Act.

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MORE Good News

The House of Representatives also just passed legislation that allows licensed marijuana-related businesses to bank freely. Because cannabis is illegal under the federal government’s eyes, banks have steered clear for fear of losing their insurance or risking prosecution. That’s forced businesses dealing with cannabis to handle their finances in almost exclusively cash. They haven’t been able to accept credit cards, direct deposits, checks, or even access loans. All of their taxes are paid in paper. Now, the House has passed a funding package that includes the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, also called the SAFE Act. “Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would improve public safety and business efficiency in the 36 states that currently permit some form of retail marijuana sales,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “The SAFE Banking Act is only the first step toward making sure that state-legal marijuana markets operate safely and efficiently. The sad reality is that those who own or patronize these currently unbanked businesses would still be recognized as criminals in the eyes of the federal government and by federal law. This situation can only be rectified by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances.” That’s what some lawmakers hope to do with the MORE Act.  Now, the SAFE Act moves on to the Senate. This isn’t the first time it’s made it that far; in fact, far from it. The House has passed SAFE banking legislation five separate times, most recently in April.