US Congress Votes on Lifting Federal Ban on Weed

This year has undeniably been full of surprises. While 2020 will surely be remembered for the COVID pandemic that threw a wrench into everyone’s plans, there were still a few bright spots here and there like the victories marijuana reform in the US scored late this year. Last election, four states voted to legalize recreational use. It also saw a new president and vice president who are known to be pot-friendly. Now a federal decriminalization act is on its way to the Senate after getting approval in the House of Representatives. 

The Biden Administration on cannabis

The Circus on SHOWTIME, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The US marijuana industry is rearing to take off in 2021 under the new administration. VP-elect Kamala Harris made it clear during the debates that she was in favor of marijuana decriminalization and even sponsored an act that would decriminalize marijuana at a federal level. President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign website likewise says that his administration will decriminalize cannabis, expunge prior convictions, and support legalization for medical purposes. Furthermore, the new Democratic president will allow states to decide on the matter of recreational marijuana on their own and may even bring down marijuana to a Schedule II drug. 

Prospects look good since recent international developments have already set the tone for the fulfillment of the president’s promise. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs has already decided to remove cannabis from its Schedule IV classification under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs upon the recommendation of the World Health Organization. It should be noted that the US is one of the countries that voted to reschedule cannabis, along with the UK, Germany, and South Africa.

The MORE Act

Introduced Rep. Jerrold Nadler in July 2019, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act or HR 3884 aims to deschedule cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and enact various criminal and social justice reforms related to marijuana. There is a good chance that the landmark piece of legislation moves forward since the new VP herself has sponsored a version of it, S2227, in the Senate. 

According to the Act’s co-sponsor, Rep. Earl Blumenauer D-Oregon, cannabis is not addictive unlike other Schedule 1 drugs like heroin and ecstasy. Meanwhile Rep. Barbara Lee D-California remarked that the Act will begin the process of restorative justice for those most harmed by discriminatory cannabis policies that for decades have perpetuated another form of systemic racism in the US.

Approval of the MORE Act is a huge deal since it will decriminalize marijuana at a federal level, practically ending weed prohibition in the US. The cannabis industry, which has already been faring quite well in states that have legalized it, is expected to soar even higher if the Act somehow gets signed into law. Investors are already preparing for this as evidenced by the new highs climbed by cannabis stocks

Social reforms under the MORE Act

Under the Act, cannabis products will also be taxed at 5% with the proceeds used for funding criminal and social reform projects. Several trust funds would be created under the Act, including the Community Reinvestment Grant which would fund services such as job training, re-entry services and legal aid; the Cannabis Opportunity Grant which will give financial assistance to small businesses in the pot industry; and the Equitable Licensing Grant, which makes it easier for those most impacted by federal prohibition to gain access to marijuana licensing and employment.

More importantly, however, the Act will expunge prior nonviolent marijuana convictions which is expected to have a significant positive social impact on people of color, particularly the black community which has been disproportionately affected by the federal government’s War on Drugs. 

The administration of grants to aid these communities will be the responsibility of the Office of Cannabis Justice which will be created within the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs under the MORE Act.

Act to face stiff opposition

Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, some experts believe that the MORE Act is nothing more than a symbolic gesture and will ultimately meet its demise in the Senate as it faces a number of hurdles. For one, there may be too short of a window time since any bill not signed into law by the time Congress adjourns on January 3 will have to be reintroduced, according to former DEA Chief of Staff Jodi Avergun.

Meanwhile, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, Maritza Perez, pointed out that some of the last-minute revisions had watered down the criminal justice and social equity provisions of the Act, including narrowing where taxes can be appropriated and who would qualify for expungement.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle the Act will face would be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who currently controls the floor. The Republican senator from Kentucky has earned a reputation for “wanting to see Americans get arrested for marijuana”. However, McConnell may change his mind depending on the developments on two runoff elections in Georgia. If polls suggest that Georgians are in favor of decriminalization, McConnell may allow the bill to reach the floor. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the MORE Act?

Introduced Rep. Jerrold Nadler in July 2019, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act or HR 3884 aims to deschedule cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and enact various criminal and social justice reforms related to marijuana. Vice President Kamala Harris also sponsored a version of the Act, S2227, in the Senate.

If the MORE Act passes, what does this mean?

If the MORE Act is signed into law, it will decriminalize marijuana at a federal level and remove from its current classification as a Schedule I narcotic, a distinction it shares with drugs like heroin. The Act will also expunge the records of those who have been convicted of low-level cannabis offenses, aid communities impacted by the War on Drugs, and give more opportunities for small and minority-owned cannabis businesses.

Conclusion

The approval of the MORE Act in the House marks the first time that a chamber of Congress has voted on a standalone marijuana bill. Justin Strekal, the policy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, remarked that although there’s likely enough votes in the Senate, the Act will probably languish in a similar fashion to the SAFE Banking Act which gives marijuana businesses access to traditional banking services. Rep. Bill Foster agrees with Strekal’s sentiments but predicts that MORE Act could also get rolled into one of those “big end of year deals” that Republicans may narrowly allow to pass. 

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