The U.S. House of Representatives made history on Friday, after voting to pass a sweeping cannabis decriminalization and social equity bill. The vote marked the first time a chamber of Congress has ever considered whether to decriminalize cannabis.
"We're here because we have failed three generations of Black and Brown young people, whose lives can be ruined, or lost, by selective enforcement of these laws. This legislation will end that disaster. It's time for Congress to step up and do its part. We need to catch up with the rest of the American people." Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a statement Friday, prior to the final vote.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act passed 228-to-164 on Friday, with support broadly split along partisan lines. Just a handful of Republicans voted in favor. Heading into the vote, the bill had 120 cosponsors — Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), an outspoken proponent of legalization, was the only Republican co-sponsor.
It was a bumpy road to a House vote on the MORE Act. Introduced in July 2019 by now Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D- N.Y. 10th District), the bill would decriminalize cannabis and deschedule it from the Controlled Substances Act. It proposed a federal tax on cannabis, part of which would be put toward programs aiding communities harmed by decades of cannabis criminalization and reducing barriers to entry in the industry. It also contained provisions for expungement and resentencing of cannabis-related crimes.
The bill passed through the House Judiciary Committee in November 2019. House Democrats had hoped to vote on its passage before the 2020 election, but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer punted on a vote amid concerns that it could harm more moderate Democrats facing tough reelection campaigns. Prominent Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence latched onto messaging suggesting Democrats were prioritizing cannabis legalization over coronavirus relief. It was, in fact, the Republican-controlled Senate that stalled out on COVID-19 relief. The Democrat-controlled House passed a version of a relief bill in October.
After the November election, Hoyer announced the House would vote on the bill in December. It headed to the Rules Committee on Dec. 2, before coming to a vote on the House floor. Nadler proposed several mostly technical amendments, including adjustments to the tax structure that would increase it over time and broaden the allocation of funds, Marijuana Moment reported. Following the bill's passage in the House, it falls to the Senate to consider it.
"Now it is up to the leaders in the Senate to take meaningful action. As we continue to move forward, elected officials would be well served asking themselves what side of history they want to be standing on," TILT Holdings CEO Mark Scatterday said in a statement.
The MORE Act faces a considerably more difficult time in the Senate. The results of the 2020 election, which saw voters in five states approve new medical or adult-use programs, have given many in the industry hope that sentiment could turn more favorable among congresspeople from historically red states like Mississippi, South Dakota, and Montana, all of which had legalization measures approved. But that could take time. Even if Democrats were to win both runoff elections in Georgia, splitting the Senate down partisan lines, many in the industry think the bill couldn't possibly drum up enough support, even among Democrats.
"While we do not expect the Senate to pass or even vote on the bill, these federal discussions around cannabis reform highlights how lawmakers are actively addressing their constituents' demands. We support the foundation of the MORE Act to create a more equitable cannabis industry, but we realize there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to deliver a true justice reform policy," Matt Hawkins, managing partner of Entourage Effect Capital, said in a statement.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a prominent anti-cannabis nonprofit, released a statement about the vote early Friday, questioning its viability in the years ahead. Kevin Sabet, president and co-founder of SAM, criticized the vote as meaningless in the lame duck Congress.
"It's worth remembering that when this vote would have actually meant something, it was canceled. It's an unserious bill that was voted on in an unserious manner and we rest easily knowing there is zero interest in moving this bill in the Senate and zero interest in supporting it in either the current administration or the incoming one," Sabet said.
Regardless of its likelihood of success, the vote does reflect changes in public opinion concerning cannabis legalization in the U.S. and worldwide. According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, about 78 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents think cannabis use should be legal, compared to about 55 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Plus, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted to reclassify cannabis in a groundbreaking vote on Wednesday.
The passage of the MORE Act also lays the framework for future cannabis reform, and sends signals to President-elect Joe Biden, who has been more conservative on cannabis than many of his Democratic colleagues, that the party is poised to act on cannabis decriminalization and social justice — two issues increasingly relevant to progressive voters.
The bill isn't just about cannabis, it's also a criminal justice reform bill. Its social justice elements assumed new relevance over the summer after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd prompted nationwide protests and a reckoning over police brutality and disproportionate policing of people of color.
"The criminalization of marijuana is a cornerstone of the racist war on drugs," Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance said in a statement. "Today the House took the most powerful step forward to address that shameful legacy. But the MORE Act as passed is imperfect, and we will continue to demand more until our communities have the world they deserve."
Black Americans are almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana use than white Americans, in spite of comparable rates of use, according to the ACLU. Plus, Black and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately represented among those incarcerated for drugs, according to Drug Policy Alliance. Even drug-related arrests that do not result in a conviction can cause problems for future job, housing, and educational prospects.