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House Committee Approves Cannabis Legalization Bill for First Time

House Committee Votes Yes on Legalization Bill for First Time
PHOTO roberto_bellasio


House Committee Approves Cannabis Legalization Bill for First Time

The skeletons of every piece of past cannabis legislation lie scattered across the committee floor, where about 90% of bills go to die anyway. On Nov. 20, Congress made history by moving a cannabis bill out of committee.

The House Judiciary Committee just voted in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act (MORE Act) and put it on track to get a floor vote in front of the rest of the House.

The 24-10 vote crossed party lines with numerous Democrats and Republicans coming out in support, but the nays all came from the right side of the aisle.

The MORE Act would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, expunge federal cannabis convictions and establish a 5% excise tax on cannabis to fund various grant programs. Many of those programs would be targeted at the communities, particularly black and Latino communities, that bore the brunt of the enforcement of cannabis laws.

The bill has already been referred to seven other House committees. Those other committees can either pass on it or take a look, but no matter what, the committees have to make that decision before the bill can see a full vote on the House floor. If one of those committees votes against the bill, the bill would be dead for this legislative session and would have to be reintroduced in the next one. If the MORE Act makes it to the full House vote, it would certainly be considered the biggest cannabis vote in U.S. history since the plant was made illegal in the first place decades ago.

One of the representatives who has fought hardest for cannabis on Capitol Hill — Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the Democrat from Oregon who is the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus — said that attending the vote made him emotional.

“It was exciting and frankly very emotional for me to be in the Judiciary Committee hearing room as Chairman [Jerrold] Nadler announced the final vote on the MORE Act, which was 24-10 and bipartisan,” he said in a statement. “This is yet another critical milepost on our journey to end the failed prohibition of cannabis that has ruined countless lives and disproportionately impacted communities of color. This vote was a vote for progressive reform, for racial justice, for personal freedom, for economic opportunity, and for better health.”

Cannabis advocacy group NORML noted that today’s vote was the first time ever that a congressional committee has approved a piece of legislation to end marijuana prohibition in the United States.

“This is a truly historic moment in our nation’s political history. For the first time, a Congressional committee has approved far-reaching legislation to not just put an end to federal marijuana prohibition, but to address the countless harms our prohibitionist policies have wrought, notable on communities of color and other marginalized groups,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said in a statement following the vote.

Altieri also noted that public opinion in America favors legal cannabis, by an overwhelming two-thirds majority.

NORML’s political director Justin Strekal attended the committee hearing and watched the vote.

“Now that Chairman Nadler has moved the MORE Act through committee, it is time for the full House to vote and have every member of Congress show their constituents which side of history they stand on,” he said.

Strekal went on to note that in 2018 alone, over 663,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related crimes, a three-year high.

The National Cannabis Industry Association also weighed in immediately following the vote.

“Today’s vote marks a turning point for federal cannabis policy, and is truly a sign that prohibition’s days are numbered,” said NCIA’s Executive Director Aaron Smith. “Thanks to the diligent efforts of advocates and lawmakers from across the political spectrum, we’ve seen more progress in this Congress than ever before. Supermajority public support for legalization, increasing recognition of the devastating impacts of prohibition on marginalized communities and people of color, and the undeniable success of state cannabis programs throughout the country are all helping to build momentum for comprehensive change in the foreseeable future.”

NCIA also noted that a recent amendment to the MORE Act included the addition of language contained in the Realizing Equitable & Sustainable Participation in Emerging Cannabis Trades (RESPECT) Resolution, introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee, a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and a Democrat from California.

“There is still much work to be done, including the establishment of sound federal regulations for cannabis products,” Smith said. “This vote brings us one step closer to ending the disaster that is prohibition and repairing the harms it has caused while we continue the discussion in Congress about how to best regulate cannabis at the federal level. We urge lawmakers to move forward with this necessary bill without delay.”

An attempt was also made to change the wording of the bill to be more in line with The STATES Act, which would allow states jurisdiction over their cannabis policies without federal interference, but Chairman Nadler, the MORE Act’s main sponsor in the House, was having none of it. Nadler said the amendment would leave all kinds of draconian stuff around because it wouldn’t fully deschedule marijuana and mandatory minimums would still exist.

“Nothing in the [STATES Act] amendment protects banks, entrepreneurs from [tax code] 280E, the MORE Act does both,” Nadler said as he took issue with his colleagues arguing that such language would make the bill more amenable to the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to say the Senate won’t take this bill,” Nadler said. “It’s not a take it or leave it with the other House. If we think is a bill is the best bill, we should pass it and negotiate.”

The Cannabis Trade Federation noted after the vote that the STATES Act is backed by a bipartisan coalition of 63 cosponsors, including 19 Republicans.

“These votes demonstrate the broad bipartisan support that exists in Congress for allowing states to determine their own cannabis policies,” CTF CEO Neal Levine said. “There appears to be a consensus among both parties that the conflict between state and federal cannabis laws is untenable and needs to be resolved. We encourage our allies in the Democratic and Republican parties come together to find a bipartisan path forward and pass a law this Congress.”

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