On November 20, 2019, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would decriminalize cannabis on a nationwide scale. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 – or MORE Act – passed with what some are calling a landslide vote of 24-10, with two Republicans – Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Tom McClintock (R-CA) – crossing party lines to join in supporting bill. This vote marks the first time in history a congressional committee has affirmatively approved to end federal cannabis prohibition. The committee markup of the MORE Act is historical in and of itself, as it represents the first debate that was not centered on whether cannabis prohibition should be abolished, but, instead, focused on implementation of a policy that would ultimately accomplish cannabis legalization.
The MORE Act would remove cannabis from the list of Schedule 1 controlled substances identified in the Controlled Substances Act. The MORE Act would also: (i) allow states to set their own cannabis-related policy, eliminating federal intervention; (ii) require federal courts to expunge prior convictions for cannabis-related offenses; and (iii) establish a 5% tax on cannabis product sales to establish a trust fund to reinvest in communities disproportionately impacted by the “war on drugs.” Proponents argue that the MORE Act would result in significant policy change that would, among other things, create a pathway for resentencing those incarcerated on cannabis-related offenses, protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis use, and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits, such as housing, or security clearance due to an individual’s cannabis use.
Historically, the debate on cannabis has generally followed two tracks. The MORE Act was no different. Republican committee members argued that the bill was rushed and should be subject to additional hearings. Democratic lawmakers countered the debate on cannabis has been raging since the 1970s and the time is nigh to reverse decades-long harms incurred enforcing strict prohibition.
It stands to reason that the legislation, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports, has a high chance of approval in the full House where Democrats maintain control with 234 seats. However, the bill will face a tougher battle in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes cannabis legalization. Senate passage will likely depend on the compromises Democrats are willing to make. It is also important to note that prior to a vote on the House floor, several committees could claim jurisdiction to consider the bill first, including the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It is possible the bill will be further amended and potentially delayed before reaching the House floor.
Admittedly, some Republican committee members openly recognize that prohibition is no longer workable and that federal law should change regardless of personal opinions on cannabis. These representatives pushed for the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act – an alternative bipartisan cannabis bill that does not contain social equity elements or formally remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. Instead, the STATES Act largely leaves cannabis policy up to the states. There is an argument to be made that this “scaled-down approach” would have a better chance of Senate approval. MORE Act supporters counter that, because the STATES Act does not deschedule cannabis, it does not sufficiently address key issues including banking and veterans’ access.
The House Judiciary Committee’s approval comes two months after legislation that would protect banks that serve cannabis businesses in states where the substance is legal. See prior post on SAFE Banking Act here.