House Democrats continue to make history when it comes to cannabis legislation. On Wednesday the powerful House Judiciary Committee approved sweeping legislation to decriminalize marijuana – a first for any congressional committee. The bill also seeks to invest federal resources into the communities hit hardest by the lingering Nixon-era “war on drugs.”
The MORE Act, which stands for the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, passed out of the committee by a 24-10 vote, with two Republicans crossing the aisle to vote with their Democratic colleagues. The legislation reimagines how the federal government views cannabis from top to bottom.
“Those who have served time for marijuana convictions often face second class citizenship when they reenter society: They are denied the right to vote. They struggle to find meaningful work. And they have problems with accessing quality housing,” Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) told reporters at a press conference on the proposal. “It is time to right this wrong.”
The legislation would take cannabis off the federal list of Controlled Substances, while also expunging past marijuana convictions and ensuring that federal benefits, like student loans or even food stamps, can’t be withheld from people just because they have a past marijuana conviction.
The final legislation was sponsored by Nadler, but it includes some provisions pushed by senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus, like Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
“This is so important especially for those individuals and communities that have been affected by unjust laws,” Lee told reporters at the Capitol.
The bill would enable the Small Business Administration to make loans to cannabis companies, which is currently prohibited because of the lingering federal prohibition on marijuana. It also would levy a 5 percent tax on cannabis sales along with on marijuana accessories.
That money would help set up an Opportunity Trust Fund, which would help pay for things like job training and literacy programs in the communities left most blighted by the decades-long “war on drugs,” as well as providing substance abuse treatment for some.
The fund would also be used to make targeted investments in small businesses located in economically depressed communities, along with supporting programs that seek to lower the barriers to accessing marijuana growing or selling licenses.
“These provisions ensure that we repair – and that’s extremely important – that we repair the harm that communities of color have endured since the failed and racist – which is what it was – war on drugs,” Lee said.
In recent years, as polls have shown increasingly wide and growing support for cannabis, many Democrats have moved away from proposing just marijuana legalization and have instead expanded those efforts to include criminal justice reform provisions as well.
“We must commit to the restorative justice that’s in this: open up economic opportunities for people of color who in millions of cases over the decades have born the brunt of unequal application of our nonsensical cannabis laws,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) told reporters at the Capitol. “We have problems in terms of cannabis law, and they are because the federal government is out of step with reality and with the public.”
One of the two Republicans who supported the legislation in committee is Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) who says he’s now lobbying his fellow Republicans to try and help expand support for the measure within the GOP.
“I’m lobbying other members to consider voting for it on the Republican side as well,” Gaetz told Wikileaf.
Even as Gaetz supports the MORE Act, he’s not expecting to be able to win over too many of his fellow Republicans. That’s why he thinks ultimately Chairman Nadler’s bill will likely have to be melded with something like the STATES Act, which would federally decriminalize marijuana while allowing every state to decide its own local marijuana laws.
“My hope is that after moving the chairman’s bill, that the chairman will schedule a markup on the STATES Act as well, which would pass the House and Senate if it were on the floor,” Gaetz said. “The chairman’s bill, I fear would not get a fair look in the Senate, but the STATES Act would, so let’s try to get as much positive cannabis reform in the bloodstream as possible.”
While it’s future is unclear, pro-cannabis lawmakers are cheering, especially after they were able to help pass the bipartisan First Step Act in the last Congress which relaxed some federal prison regulations, especially for nonviolent drug offenders.
“We took an important first step, you know, last Congress to begin to address overcriminalization in America. But the work is just beginning. And one of the things that we can do moving forward is deal with marijuana legalization and decriminalization and give the states the opportunity to decide what is best for their citizens,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told Wikileaf. “It’s incredibly important that we deschedule marijuana and allow the resources of the federal government to focus on more illicit narcotics activity.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is the lead sponsor of the MORE Act’s companion legislation in the Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been blocking other cannabis-related bills from ever seeing the light of day in his chamber.
Even the bill’s supporters fear McConnell will try to block this historic measure from coming up for a vote, which is increasingly becoming a part of the pitch from many marijuana proponents inside and outside of Congress for why ousting – or replacing – McConnell should be a top goal in next year’s election.