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Historic House vote to legalize marijuana expected this month

September 1, 2020

A historic vote to federally legalize marijuana is expected to occur later this month in the House of Representatives.

According to statements from leading Democrats, the House will vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act around Sept. 21—the strongest step toward federal legalization ever taken by Congress.

“It’s the first-ever comprehensive marijuana legalization bill to ever be considered for a full House floor vote,” said Queen Adesuyi, national affairs policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed a MORE Act vote on the House floor in a “Dear Colleague” letter reported on by Politico and Marijuana Moment. A successful floor vote would federally legalize marijuana if the Senate agreed, and the President signed it. Senate adoption is unlikely this year, however. That gives the MORE Act a reported 3% chance of passing, due to Republican intransigence.

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About 66% of Americans support fully legalizing cannabis and more than 80% support medical cannabis.

More than 663,000 marijuana arrests occurred in 2018, the most recent year for which data are available. Most of those arrests were for simple marijuana possession. Marijuana arrests are the leading type of drug arrest, and drug arrests are the most common arrests police make.

Eleven states have legalized cannabis for adults 21 and over, and more than 30 have some medical marijuana law. Despite critics’ early fears, studies have consistently found that marijuana legalization has not caused teen use to rise.

What’s in HR 3884, the MORE Act?

The MORE Act is the most potent legalization bill on Capitol Hill. It strikes marijuana from the notorious list of dangerous drugs in the Controlled Substances Act. A federal tax would dedicate 5% of legal sales to a trust fund for post-Drug War reconstruction—sentence reductions, expungements, small business loans, and more.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee (and a former district attorney and state attorney general), is the lead sponsor of the MORE Act in the Senate.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) leads the mirror bill in the House. Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which approved the MORE Act last November.

Related
The MORE Act Calls for Sweeping Changes in Federal Cannabis Law

The MORE Act would:

  • replace all statutory references to “marijuana” and “marihuana” with cannabis
  • require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to regularly publish demographic data on cannabis business owners and employees
  • establish a trust fund to support various programs and services for individuals and businesses in communities impacted by the war on drugs
  • impose a 5% federal tax on cannabis products, with revenue to be deposited into a trust fund dedicated to repairing the damage of the War on Drugs
Illinois first day of recreational adult use cannabis sales on January 1, 2020
Edie Moore (right), executive director of Chicago NORML makes the first purchase on the first day of recreational cannabis sales in Illinois at Mission dispensary in Chicago, Illinois, Jan. 1, 2020. (Taylor Glascock/for Leafly)
  • make Small Business Administration loans and services available to entities that are legitimate cannabis-related businesses or service providers
  • prohibit the denial of federal public benefits to any person on the basis of certain cannabis-related conduct or convictions
  • prohibit the denial of benefits and protections under immigration laws on the basis of a cannabis-related event (e.g., conduct or a conviction)
  • establish a process to expunge convictions and conduct sentencing review hearings related to federal cannabis offenses.
Plain text: The historic language of HR 3884 removes marijuana from the notorious Nixon-era Controlled Substances Act.

Why such long odds?

An increasing number of conservative voters and leaders have embraced legalization. But that evolution has yet to trickle up to Republican leaders in the US Senate.

The Republican party’s core voters—conservative white men over 50 with some college or less—do not lean green. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a leader on hemp legalization matters, continues to reject non-medical marijuana legal reform.

President Trump has signaled support for the much milder STATES Act, a competing measure that would allow states to carve out their own cannabis exemptions to the Controlled Substances Act. But the President has also repealed Obama-era legalization policies like the Cole Memo, used antitrust investigations to harass state-legal cannabis companies, and lauded overseas dictators for using the death penalty for drug crimes.

Legalization has foes on the left as well.

Related
Dear Joe Biden: Here’s the data, now it’s time to embrace marijuana legalization

Despite the overwhelming popularity of legalization among Democratic party voters, the Democratic National Committee rejected full legalization in its party platform adopted in late July. The platform instead embraced cannabis decriminalization.

The Democrat-controlled House returns to a very busy session next Tuesday, Sept. 8, and several committees would have to speed up or waive hearings to get the MORE Act to the floor.

Big-picture effects of MORE

The MORE Act’s radical break from the past might provide enough cover for more incremental steps like the STATES Act—a bipartisan-supported exemption for legalization states, experts note.

And MORE’s passage in the lower chamber would exemplify what a 2021 Democrat-controlled House, Senate, and White House cannabis policy might look like. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has signaled his comfort with cannabis decriminalization, but hasn’t come out in favor of full federal legalization. His running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, though, comes from a state that’s had a legal regulated adult-use market operating since early 2018.

Activists ask voters to do MORE

As historic as a full House vote on the MORE Act would be, the measure is unlikely to go much further due to the current makeup of the Senate. This November, 35 of the Senate’s 100 seats go before the voters—which means the outcome of this fall’s general election could very well mean the difference between federal legalization, or the continuation of cannabis prohibition.

NORML, Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU, the Marijuana Policy Project and other legalization advocacy organizations urge you to register to vote and vote to support reform at all levels. Yes, tell your reps to support the MORE Act, but also help chose your next sheriff, or local council person that makes marijuana the lowest enforcement priority, for starters.

“It will be interesting to see if this historic vote draws more attention to marijuana legalization as the election approaches,” said Sam D’Arcangelo, Director of HeadCount’s Cannabis Voter Project. “After all, most of the people who will cast a vote on this bill are up for re-election in November. Now they have to take a clear position on this issue whether they like it or not.”

“This is a big deal, no two ways around it.”

Justin Strekal, NORML

“This is a big deal, no two ways around it,” said Justin Strekal, national political director of NORML. “We’re living in the moment that the history books will regard as the first federal vote to end marijuana prohibition.”

“Passage of The MORE Act is essential in order to truly right the wrongs of federal marijuana criminalization,” said NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano, “and to once and for all allow the majority of states that have legalized cannabis for either medical or adult-use to embrace these policies free from the threat of undue federal prosecution or interference.” 

Related
Cannabis leaders react to Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris: Will she help or hurt marijuana legalization?

MORE is not the end of prohibition

If and when federal legalization passes, more work will remain to be done for cannabis to be treated like alcohol or tobacco.

Most states will still have marijuana on their state-level Controlled Substances Acts. States will also control who will be allowed to legally grow and sell cannabis.

Lastly, local city and county officials almost always get to decide whether to prohibit or allow cannabis commerce within their borders. So your vote counts on cannabis issues from the top of the ballot to the very bottom.

Want to learn more about marijuana legalization? Check out our Legalization Resource hub.

David Downs's Bio Image
David Downs

David Downs directs news and lifestyle coverage as the California Bureau Chief for Leafly.com. He's written for WIRED, Rolling Stone and Billboard, and is the former cannabis editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the author of several cannabis books including 'Marijuana Harvest' by Ed Rosenthal and David Downs. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. TW: @davidrdowns | IG @daviddowns

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