Pleas to legalize cannabis have echoed through the US Capitol since at least the 1970s, when pot-smoking hippies in suits started lobbying against prohibition, but comprehensive legalization bills had never passed out of a Congressional committee — until Wednesday.
The House Judiciary Committee took a landslide 24-10 vote to approve legislation that would eliminate federal penalties for cannabis, remove conviction records, and invest in communities — particularly communities of color who have been disproportionately hurt by drug enforcement — to ensure they reap a share of legalization’s profits.
"Thousands of individuals — overwhelmingly people of color — have been subjected, by the federal government, to unjust prison sentences for marijuana offenses,” House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler said in opening remarks that nodded to the groundwork laid by Rep. Barbara Lee of California. “This needs to stop.”
The committee’s decisive passage of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or MORE Act, marks one of the clearest examples yet of marijuana crossing a threshold into mainstream political acceptance, even as it faces an uncertain vote by the entire House and a hostile audience in the Senate.
Third-rail for generations, legalization support has become a virtual requirement among Democrats after several blue-state voters mandated their own laws, and the congressional bill won votes on Wednesday from Republicans as well. Among the cosponsors is Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. The legalization tide has swept right past Joe Biden, the former vice president and antidrug former senator, who stuck out as an outlier in the Democratic presidential race this week by opposing federal legalization and questioning whether pot is a “gateway drug.”
The bill has support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a spokesperson for the top House Democrat told BuzzFeed News this week, which bodes well for passage if it reaches a vote from the full chamber.
Still, several committees could claim jurisdiction to consider the bill first. Among them, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has relatively few sponsors of the bill, so skeptical lawmakers could move to amend the legislation or slow it down.
Introduced by Nadler, the MORE Act is an amalgamation of several bills floated by Democrats in recent years — the fact that this particular measure emerged as the party’s consensus shows Democrats want social justice to be a nonnegotiable component of legalization. In essence, they have declared that merely removing penalties for the drug is not enough; expunging criminal records and carving out a place for people of color in the cannabis economy is considered essential.
The MORE Act would eliminate penalties for cannabis and THC, its primary psychoactive ingredient, at the federal level by removing the drug from the Controlled Substances Act. Decriminalization would be applied to both previous and pending convictions.
It would further allow states to set their own policies by removing the risk of federal intervention. Eleven states have legalized cannabis for adult recreational use, including 10 that authorize growing and sales. Vermont allows use and home cultivation, but has not authorized commercialized sales or growing.
Further, the MORE Act would mandate that federal courts erase past convictions from criminal records and require courts to hold hearings to resentence anyone still under correctional supervision. Cannabis could no longer be used to deny citizenship to immigrants or bar them from receiving federal benefits, such as housing.
The bill offers several grants designed to compensate for historic ills against victims of cannabis law enforcement —particularly people of color who have long been disproportionately, and deliberately, targeted and convicted of cannabis offenses. That includes authorizing the assessment of a 5% sales tax on cannabis products to create an Opportunity Trust Fund. Among other measures, the grants would offer legal aid, drug treatment, and loans to enter the cannabis industry — which has been dominated by white entrepreneurs since states began to legalize in 2012.
“We have been absolutely shut out of this business,” Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia said Wednesday.
One of the lobbying groups since the 1970s and a backer of the MORE Act, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said the bill's passage through committee was “unprecedented.” The group’s political director, Justin Strekal, called on ”the full House to vote and have every member of Congress show their constituents which side of history they stand on."
Debate over the bill, during a markup hearing to consider amendments, focused less on whether pot should be legalized, but how — with some conservatives invoking a bill known as the STATES Act, which would allow states to set their own laws without threat of federal intervention.
“There are things with smaller steps, that are not perfect by any means,” said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the committee’s top Republican member, who voted against the measure Wednesday. “I would like to see something that could actually work… you do it gradually and bipartisanly.”
Pew Research found last week that public support for legalization crossed a two-thirds threshold nationwide, including an unprecedented majority of both Democrats and Republicans.
Speaker Pelosi has made a veritable anthem in recent weeks that the House can legislate and investigate the president simultaneously. But Republicans on the committee Wednesday noted that the House had bigger business related to the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and a forthcoming Justice Department report about probes into Trump’s associates.
Collins complained about the focus on cannabis legalization, saying bills like the MORE Act “are at best conversation starters in the Senate and at worst are just political statements.”