For the first time in U.S. history, a House of Representatives committee voted in favor of a bill that would take steps to loosen restrictions on cannabis at the federal level. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 passed through the House Judiciary Committee 24-10 on Wednesday.
"These steps are long overdue. 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," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), sponsor of the MORE Act, said during his prepared remarks.
The bill goes far in answering calls by cannabis industry advocates and progressive Democrats for lawmakers to address social equity concerns inherent to cannabis legalization. The ambitious bill seeks to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, reinvest revenues from a 5 percent excise tax into programs to assist communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization, and expunge cannabis-related arrests and convictions, among other things.
The markup of the bill, announced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Nadler on Monday, took many by surprise. But the issues addressed by the bill have been top of mind for many as more states move to legalize cannabis. Illinois, for example, was widely praised for the sweeping social equity provisions written into the adult-use cannabis bill that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law over the summer. And as recently as September, as the House was moving to vote on the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, critics including presidential contenders Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Mass.) urged lawmakers to only consider legislation that contains provisions designed to combat the consequences from the war on drugs.
"We shouldn't do this without addressing the reality that people of color are being shut out of the legal marijuana industry. That means not only legalizing marijuana but also expunging criminal records and providing a path for people of color to enter the industry," Harris wrote in a tweet in September, days before SAFE Banking came up for a vote on the floor of the House.
Harris is the MORE Act's Senate sponsor. She introduced the bill with Nadler in July.
Shelly Edgerton, senior counsel in the Government Policy Practice Group at leading law firm Dykema, said that the SAFE Banking Act could face more of the same political scrutiny if it comes up for vote in the Senate. But that even the most politically outspoken politicians likely recognize the value of incremental legalization — even if they claim otherwise.
"They're making political statements, but I think they are also realists in the fact that small steps can help you win the war," said Edgerton, who led the creation of the regulatory licensing program for Michigan's medical marijuana program. "I think what you're seeing is there is such a pressure point to get better marijuana cannabis policy at the federal level that everyone is scrambling to do whatever bill is necessary."
The MORE Act's odds of making it that far, however, look a little slimmer. It currently only has about 57 co-sponsors in the House and five in the Senate, three of whom are presidential candidates Harris, Booker, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
During a press conference on Tuesday, prior to the vote on the MORE Act, Nadler called the bill part of a longer-term push, Marketwatch reported.
Non-supporters were not shy about voicing their concerns about the bill during the markup on Wednesday.
Rep. Doug Collins called it a "political statement," and said the committee was wasting its time on the bill, considering it lacks substantial bipartisan support. Of the 24 representatives who voted in favor of the bill, only two, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), were Republican, and the bill only has one Republican co-sponsor in the House. He said the committee should instead consider bills with broader bipartisan support, like the The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, for cannabis reform. The STATES Act officially puts legalization into the hands of the states, but notably fails to include social equity provisions. The STATES Act has 63 cosponsors in the House, 19 of whom are Republican, and nine in the Senate, five of whom are Republican.
"A political statement is a bill that can't become law," Collins said. "There are things like the STATES Act, there are things that are smaller steps that accomplish a lot, that are not perfect by any means."
Collins also called the committee's process premature, considering the bill did not first get a hearing that could help inform the public. Democrats were quick to push back on that point, arguing the public knows first hand the impacts of cannabis criminalization. More than 600,000 people were arrested for possession alone in 2018, according to Drug Policy Alliance.
"This issue is not new to Congress. There have been many members who have introduced bills upon which provisions in this bill are based," Nadler said during the bill's mark up.
Despite his support for the bill, McClintock also raised some concerns, specifically where the excise tax revenue should be allocated. Instead of using it to kick start social programming, he argued about half should go toward toward general purposes as determined by Congress and half should be put toward law enforcement.
Edgerton said his ideas were not misplaced about law enforcement.
"They need to start figuring out the tools necessary to be in the new world of decriminalization and how do you approach things from an educational standpoint. Law enforcement should be partners on these, not necessarily adversaries," she said.
Despite the bill's many challenges, Edgerton said the fact that it even made it this far is in and of itself "phenomenal."
"This is again another landmark discussion, the fact that Congress is taking up anything to do with marijuana. That shows how far the country has come in terms of dynamic and discussion. To think that in the same session you are having another cannabis policy bill come before Congress for a vote, I think that's huge, I think it's phenomenal," she said.