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Cannabis Legalization Bill Approved by House Judiciary Committee in Historic Vote

Nov 22, 2019

Cannabis Legalization Bill Approved by House Judiciary Committee in Historic Vote

In a historic first, a key congressional committee has approved a bill which would end the federal prohibition of cannabis.

The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act was passed by the House Judiciary Committee in a 24-to-10 vote on Wednesday, November 20.

The bill was put forward by Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who is also the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. In the voting, two Republicans – Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Tom McClintock (R-CA) – joined with their Democratic colleagues on the committee to support the bill.

“These steps are long overdue,” said Rep. Nadler, in his opening remarks.

“For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of a matter of personal choice and public health. Whatever one’s views on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating users at the federal level is unwise and unjust.”

 

What would the MORE Act do for American cannabis?

The central tenet of the bill is a provision that would federally de-schedule cannabis by removing cannabis and products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from the Controlled Substances Act.

The bill would also expunge the criminal records of those with previous cannabis-related convictions and introduce a 5 percent tax on cannabis sales. The revenue from this tax would then be reinvested into communities that were most impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition and the failed ‘war on drugs.’

It would also create a pathway for re-sentencing those who are currently incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses and would introduce new protections for immigrants ensuring that citizenship couldn’t be denied because of cannabis use. Additionally, federal agencies would be prevented from denying public benefits or security clearance to individuals over cannabis use.

 

What did the House Judiciary Committee have to say about the bill?

There were several amendments to the bill that were put forward before the committee during the markup.

Nadler put forward an amendment to his own bill, adding a section that formally notes the racial disparities in the enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws and the lack of equity for those communities that were disproportionately harmed by America’s war on drugs. The amendment passed and the section was included in the approved bill.

Other amendments were also approved: one put forward by Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) clarified that the community reinvestment provision would include funding for community-wide projects, such as mentorship programs, as well as supporting individuals. The other amendment from Rep. Sheila Jackson (D-TX) would require the Government Accountability Office and National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct a study formally examining the demographic characteristics of those convicted of federal cannabis-related offenses.

An amendment from Rep. Ken Buck was defeated by a voice vote. The amendment would have replaced major sections of the MORE Act with parts of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act.

The STATES Act is a separate piece of cannabis reform legislation making its way through congress this legislative session. Instead of federally de-scheduling cannabis, the STATES Act would give more power to the states to decide their own cannabis laws without fear of federal pushback. The STATES Act also doesn’t include any provisions for reparations or restorative justice.

A second amendment to the MORE Act brought by Buck, which requires the Government Accountability Office to study the societal impact of legalization, was adopted by voice vote.

An amendment from Rep. McClintock which would have affected the way cannabis tax revenue was distributed wasn’t adopted, after the chairman advised that the change would fall under the jurisdiction of a different committee.

 

Will the bill pass?

There were positive signs from the committee discussions; several Republican members made statements recognizing a need to introduce some sort of cannabis reform regardless of what their own personal views on the drug may be.

“I don’t sing the praises of marijuana,” said Rep. McClintock (R-CA). “I simply recognize the limitation of our laws and also the limits on my ability to try and run everybody’s lives for them.”

But in order to pass, the MORE Act must still make it through seven other congressional committees, a number of votes on the floor of the majority-Democrat House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled senate, and seek final approval from the president.

The bill’s biggest challenge – if it can get there – will be the senate. The chamber’s majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has been a stanch opponent of recreational cannabis reform. The senator was a strong supporter of industrial hemp legalization last year, but this was mostly born out of a desire to help the hemp farmers in his home state of Kentucky, rather than to support general cannabis reform measures.

While many of the pro-cannabis reform Republican congresspeople are happy to support the STATES Act and argue for its provisions to be implemented, it appears that there is less bipartisan support for the MORE Act. Despite this, Rep. Nadler remains confident that support will continue to build behind the bill as it moves through the legislature, and that we will see a floor vote on cannabis legalization within this legislative session. 

 

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