United States House of Representatives Passes Legislation to Federally Legalize Marijuana

Posted by Erin Hopper on

United States House of Representatives Passes Legislation to Federally Legalize Marijuana

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, widely known as the MORE Act, is a bill sponsored by Democrat Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York. The MORE Act would remove marijuana from the controlled substances list and eliminate criminal penalties for individuals who grow, distribute, or possess it. 

Marijuana is currently listed as a Schedule 1 drug, such as heroin, peyote, and ecstasy. These substances are defined as having a high potential for abuse and no medical uses. Removing the cannabis plant from this list would be an incredible feat that's been a long time coming. 

During a debate on Friday, April 1, 2022, Democrat Representative Jerrold Nadler said that the MORE Act would treat marijuana as a public health issue instead of a criminal one. It begins to rectify a “heavy toll” that criminalizing marijuana has taken on communities of color and low-income communities. The legislation, if passed, would also replace all statutory references to “marijuana” and “marihuana” with the word “cannabis.” 

The MORE Act would also “end decades of failed and unjust marijuana policy,” Democrat Representative Ed Perlmutter said Thursday ahead of the vote on the House floor. “It is clear that prohibition is over. Today we have an opportunity to chart a new path forward on federal cannabis policy that would actually make sense.” He added that the bill would not force states to legalize cannabis. 

Republican Representative Michelle Fischbach called the bill “not only flawed but dangerous,” arguing on the House floor that it did not protect minors and would encourage people to open cannabis businesses. Republicans continued to push back on the bill, arguing that it does not sufficiently address the legal age for use, the differences between marijuana and hemp, a concern among agricultural interests, and use by motorists. 

The 220-203 vote to pass the MORE Act mainly fell along party lines on April 1st, 2022. Three Republicans voted in favor, and two Democrats voted against the Act. Lacking the support of Republicans, the bill would need to gain 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate to pass through to President Biden’s desk for his signature.

Because federal law classifies cannabis as an illegal drug with no medical uses, researchers are severely limited in how they can study the drug and its impacts, making the new policy challenging to write. While 13 states still have cannabis completely banned, 37 states have legalized cannabis in some form, either recreationally, medically, or both. This state-by-state legality makes a complicated legal patchwork for marijuana users and businesses to navigate. Cannabis businesses are also largely blocked from the U.S. banking system because of the federal ban.   

Interestingly enough, a 2021 Pew Research poll found that 91 percent of Americans agreed that either medical or recreational use should be allowed. The House passing the MORE Act signals a continued interest by Democrats in overhauling the federal approach to cannabis as a legal substance for medical use. 

However, this is not the first attempt to pass these legalization measures. The bill was first passed in 2020 making this the second consecutive Congress to pass a marijuana progressive. In 2020, the GOP-controlled Senate declined to pass the Act, but this time around, lawmakers hope that with the public’s support and a Democratic majority in the chamber, it could spur action in the Senate.

Senator Cory Booker said earlier this week that moving the bill past the House would be unlikely as Senators are working on their own proposal. “Right now we’re looking at doing the one we have been working on for all this time,” said the New Jersey Democrat, referring to a discussion draft released last year with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. That draft contained a similar tax regime to alcohol and tobacco. 

The House bill and Senate proposal differ on how to impose excise taxes for marijuana importers and distributors. Senators sought to set the rate at 10 percent, which would increase to 25 percent in five years. Advocacy and industry groups argue the rate would be too high, even though the tax credits would halve that rate for small businesses. The House bill calls for a 5 percent tax rate that would inch up to 8 percent in five years.  

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the House bill could generate $8.1 billion by 2031. Some of which would fund programs in communities most affected by the war on drugs. It also would create a process for some people to get federal cannabis convictions expunged and sentences reviewed. “It’s very encouraging that there is an appetite not just to decriminalize at the federal level, but really to do restorative justice – things that are very important,” Senator Booker said.

Booker also said it would be tough to find the 60 votes needed to pass the MORE Act and that a supporter’s best bet would be to package it with provisions that the GOP has favorably received. That includes House-passed legislation to give banks the ability to provide services to legitimate cannabis-related businesses. The Senate has not yet taken up the bill, and Booker suggested that the bill’s financial and criminal justice components should not be separated. 

“If we get that done, you lose a valuable sweetener to get restorative justice,” he said. “It’s really important that we don’t break this up, or we are going to really lose a chance to alleviate a stress for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans.” Booker also said he hopes the Senate proposal release will be close to April 20th, an unofficial holiday for marijuana enthusiasts to celebrate. This release would be a fantastic opportunity to announce another path to federally legalizing marijuana.

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