On April 1, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to decriminalize cannabis on the federal level with the passage of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. Lawmakers approved the legislation with a 220-204 vote, passed largely along party lines by the House’s Democratic majority.
“This landmark legislation is one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history: delivering justice for those harmed by the brutal, unfair consequences of criminalization; opening the doors of opportunity for all to participate in this rapidly growing industry; and decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level so we do not repeat the grave mistakes of our past,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor before the vote.
The MORE Act would effectively decriminalize cannabis at the federal level by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. The bill, H.R. 3617, also includes provisions for the expungement of federal cannabis convictions. Additionally, the measure establishes a federal tax on retail cannabis sales, with revenue raised by the tax invested in communities that were harmed under federal cannabis prohibition policies. The tax would initially be set at 5% and gradually increase to 8% over time.
Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, the sponsor of the legislation, said on Friday that the legislation “would set a new path forward and would begin to correct some of the injustices of the last 50 years.”
“Whatever one’s views are on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, the policy of arrests, prosecution and incarceration at the federal level has proven both unwise and unjust,” Nadler said.
Broad Support for Cannabis Reform
A Pew Research poll conducted last year showed that 91% of Americans support cannabis legalization for medical purposes, while 18 states have now legalized adult-use marijuana. The MORE Act enjoys broad support from cannabis reform advocates who praise the legislation’s social equity measures.
“This vote is a clear indicator that Congress is finally listening to the vast majority of voters who are sick and tired of our failed marijuana criminalization policies and the damage they continue to inflict in communities across the nation every day,” said NORML political director Morgan Fox in a statement from the cannabis policy reform advocacy group. “It is long overdue that we stop punishing adults for using a substance that is objectively safer than alcohol, and that we work to address the disparate negative impacts that prohibition has inflicted on our most vulnerable individuals and marginalized communities for nearly a century.”
“The time has come for federal lawmakers to put aside partisan differences and recognize that state-level legalization policies are publicly popular, successful, and are in the best interests of our country,” Fox added. “Now that the House has once again supported sensible and comprehensive cannabis policy reform, we strongly urge the Senate to move forward on this issue without delay.”
The House passed the MORE Act in December 2020, but the bill failed in the Senate. In a statement Friday afternoon, Senate Majority Lead Chuck Schumer applauded the House passage of the MORE Act, saying that “the time has come for comprehensive reform of federal cannabis laws.” Schumer is expected to introduce his own bill to decriminalize marijuana later this month after releasing a draft version of the legislation in 2021.
“Of course, we will need Republicans to pass a legalization bill in the Senate, and we will be working hard to try and get them,” Schumer said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a scheduled press briefing on Friday afternoon that President Joe Biden “agrees that we need to rethink our approach” to marijuana laws. But she did not say if he supports the MORE Act as passed by the House last week.
“We look forward to working with Congress to achieve our shared goals and will continue having discussions with them about this objective,” Psaki said.
Fate of Bill in Senate Uncertain
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, told reporters that the legislation may see the same fate it suffered in 2020.
“When it goes to the Senate, it’s probably dead on arrival for two principal reasons,” Jones said in an interview with the ABC affiliate in Houston. “First, it needs 10 Republicans to support it if all of the Democrats do so and right now, the votes aren’t there.”
Jones added that he expects a few GOP senators to vote for the bill, but not enough to reach the 60 votes needed for passage.
“Republicans tend to support the decriminalization of marijuana either for fiscal reasons that is less government and more tax dollars from it, or from a libertarian perspective that the government shouldn’t be involved in these types of personal decisions,” Jones said.
Still, he added that federal cannabis reform is inevitable.
“In some way, shape or form, federal legislation will catch up to the more progressive states, but it may take a while to do it and a lot will depend on if there’s a Republican majority in the House and Senate next year,” he said.