Congressional Committee Takes Historic Step Toward Decriminalizing Marijuana
For the first time in American history, a congressional committee approved a marijuana legalization bill. On November 20, 2019, after more than two hours of debate, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 (H.R. 3884) in a 24 to 10 vote. If the MORE Act becomes law, it would effectively end the federal prohibition of cannabis in the United States.
Currently, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin and LSD, under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs are those that the federal government considers to have no proven or acceptable medical use and a high abuse potential. The MORE Act, if passed into law, would remove marijuana from Schedule I.
The House Judiciary Committee’s actions are particularly significant on the heels of Veterans Day. Under current federal law, doctors at the VA can discuss marijuana use with patients, but they cannot recommend it, even in states where marijuana is legal under local law. To date, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for recreational use. Medical marijuana, prescribed by physicians, is legal in 33 states. But veterans can lose all VA benefits if they are found to be using cannabis, even if lawfully prescribed by a physician outside the VA.
In addition to removing marijuana from Schedule I, the MORE Act also would require federal courts to expunge certain convictions for marijuana offenses, and it would create a Cannabis Justice Office focused on reinvesting resources into communities that have been disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition. A 5% tax imposed on the sale of legal cannabis products would cover the costs of the initiative, which would provide job training, legal assistance and treatment for substance abuse in communities most impacted by the war on drugs. If enacted, the law also would create a “Cannabis Opportunity Program” and an “Equitable Licensing Grant Program” to allow the Small Business Administration to issue loans and grants to marijuana-related businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced the bill, which has the support of more than 50 cosponsors. In his opening statement, Rep. Nadler said, “for far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of a matter of personal choice and public health. Whatever one’s views on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating users at the federal level is unwise and unjust.” He added, “the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake [and] the racial disparity in marijuana enforcement laws only compounded this mistake with serious consequences, particularly for minority communities.”
Although the bill received votes from two Republicans, Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Tom McClintock (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Doug Collins (R-GA), said that the bill “is nearly devoid of bipartisan support.” Even Rep. Gaetz, who voted in favor of the legislation, observed, “We may need something a little less than MORE.” Committee Chairman Nadler, however, believes that compromises can be made later in the legislative process and he therefore does not think it necessary to scale back the bill at the outset. He is optimistic that the legislation will get a full floor vote before the end of the current Congress.
Many Republicans in Congress recognize that federal marijuana laws much change, but they believe that the MORE Act is too aggressive. Therefore, they support legislative action on the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act. Unlike the MORE Act, the STATES Act does not contain social equity elements or formally remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. Rather, the STATES Act would leave cannabis policy to the various states.
Thus, notwithstanding this historic step in the legislative process, the MORE Act still faces significant hurdles. Indeed, the Judiciary Committee is the only committee that has taken up the bill so far. The bill has been referred to seven other House committees, each of which could influence the debate. Moreover, even if the bill passes the Democratic-controlled House, it is unlikely to be considered in the Senate.