WEED the People…Where does Congress Stand on Legalizing Cannabis?
Updated: Jul 21
On April 1, 2022, the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment Expungement (MORE) Act along party lines, with 220 votes in favor and 204 opposing. The Act is sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). This was the second time the House passed this Bill.
The MORE Act decriminalizes marijuana by removing it from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act. Additionally, it eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses marijuana.
The bill also:
Mandates the Bureau of Labor Statistics to regularly publish demographic data on cannabis business owners and employees
Establishes a trust fund to support various programs and services for individuals and businesses in communities impacted by the war on drugs
Imposes an excise tax on cannabis products produced in or imported into the United States
Imposes an occupational tax on cannabis production facilities and export warehouses
Provides for available Small Business Administration loans and services to entities that are cannabis-related legitimate businesses or service providers
Prohibits the denial of federal public benefits to a person based on certain cannabis-related conduct or convictions
Prohibits the denial of benefits and protections under immigration laws based on a cannabis-related event (e.g., conduct or a conviction)
Establishes a process to expunge convictions and conduct sentencing review hearings arising from federal cannabis offenses
Orders the Government Accountability Office to study the societal impact of cannabis legalization.
Having gained approval in the House, the bill now heads to the Senate, where votes will, again, likely come down according to party lines. Considering the current breakdown of 48 Democrats, 50 Republicans and 2 Independents (who generally caucus with the Democrats), the bill will need the support of at least 10 GOP senators (assuming every Democrat votes in its favor) to pass.
Passage of the bill in the Senate does not look promising. This is particularly true considering that most view the current version of the MORE Act to be overbroad and too far reaching. Particularly, the parties’ divide surrounds a particular fundamental question: When changing the nation’s drug laws, should the federal government also take steps to provide financial incentives to individuals and communities who were most harshly impacted by the war on drugs? Republicans say no.
“You’re not going to be able to get Republicans on board… the way that the MORE Act is done,” said Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who introduced a bill last year that decriminalizes cannabis and expunges some records but does not create federal grant programs. “You’ve got to have Republicans on board if we’re going to have any chance of getting it done in the Senate.”
Understanding the importance of maximizing on the momentum of the MORE bill, Democratic senators are pushing to introduce their own legislation before the Senate recesses in August. However, if that bill also contains sweeping financial incentives, it will also likely fail. In fact, in February, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced the details of his own bill to federally legalize cannabis – the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act (CAOA). However, it is anticipated that, as written, the bill will not have the support to pass.
On a promising note, however, Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Dave Joyce (R-OH) recently announced discussions about crafting a bipartisan cannabis package. Perlmutter, sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, said that his legislation to safeguard financial institutions that work with state-legal marijuana businesses would be part of the package under consideration. He also indicated interest in including the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act to incentive state and local governments to expunge prior marijuana records, as well as proposals to provide veterans with access to medical cannabis and expand marijuana research. No deal has not yet been reached and talks are tentative at this point.
“These talks are very serious,” a source involved in criminal justice reform said. “I would say this is one of the most serious bipartisan, bicameral conversations that we’ve seen occur in our time in this space.”
All of this said, and party-based roadblocks aside, reports indicate that leaders are determined to pass some version of legalization legislation by the end of this Congress’ session. To do that, however, they must find a way to put their party divides aside and reach an agreement that puts constituents’ interests first (the ¾ of Americans who believe marijuana should be legalized for medicinal and recreational use). Whether this is possible remains to be seen.