Leadership of the House of Representatives is moving toward holding a floor vote on a comprehensive federal cannabis legalization bill in September, multiple sources familiar with the developing plan tell Marijuana Moment.
The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) last year—has already cleared his panel and was referred to several other committees. In the months since, advocates have been eagerly awaiting further action to advance the legislation to the floor.
While the coronavirus pandemic has stalled legislative efforts on a wide range of issues, sources in the advocacy world and an aide to a key House committee chair say that a floor vote of the MORE Act is now being planned for September.
The mechanics of that plan are tricky, as several additional committees would have to either hold their own markups on the bill in the coming weeks amid the pandemic and a planned August recess, or the chairs would have to waive jurisdiction outright, as the Small Business Committee has already indicated it will. The aide to a committee chair who spoke to Marijuana Moment did so on background only in order to be able to candidly discuss plans that haven’t yet been publicly announced by House leaders.
“Looking at the legislative calendar, realistically we have limited time to get this on the House floor for a vote before time runs out and Congress has to turn their attention elsewhere,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told Marijuana Moment.
DPA is also part of a coalition, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and NORML, that circulated a letter on Wednesday urging Congress to move on the bill, arguing that the COVID-19 outbreak has underscored the need for reform. The legislation currently has 76 cosponsors.
“This Congress, the House made history when it passed an industry-led marijuana bill,” Adesuyi said, referring to the passage of cannabis banking legislation. “It would be shameful for them, as one of the most progressive group of electeds in recent memory, to end the year without addressing victims of the war on drugs or centering those most adversely impacted by marijuana’s criminalization. We need the MORE Act now.”
In addition to that floor vote on the standalone banking bill last year, the House approved its provisions again as part of a coronavirus relief package in May.
The MORE Act would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a federal five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.
It would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.
“The Judiciary Committee has already done their job and now it’s time for the full House to show the American people who supports ending marijuana criminalization and who supports the failed and violent policy of prohibition,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.
Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the group “supports the MORE Act because, platform planks, task force reports and political rhetoric will not stop 600,000 of our citizens from arrest, prosecution and incarceration every year. The MORE Act will.”
“If they hold the gavel and have the votes, there is no reason to wait another term,” he said, referring to Democratic leadership. “For the next 600,000 prisoners of the drug war, it would be a term too late.”
The planned vote on the standalone MORE Act is separate from a spending bill amendment to protect all state marijuana programs from federal intervention that was filed this week and could be considered on the House floor next week.
“It is only a matter of time before cannabis is descheduled at the federal level and the other reforms contained in the MORE Act are enacted,” Steve Fox, a strategic advisor to the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment . “We are supportive of any committee hearing or vote that moves us closer to our ultimate goals of ending cannabis prohibition, advancing social equity, and regulating cannabis like alcohol under federal law.”
If a vote is scheduled in the House and members approve it, there will still be an open question about whether the Republican-controlled Senate would follow suit. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a strong advocate for hemp, but he’s maintained steadfast opposition to broader marijuana reform. That said, he did hold closed-door meetings with industry representatives last year.
It’s possible that House action might make Senate leaders feel increased pressure to act on a more modest cannabis reform proposal such as the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, however. That bill, which is sponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), would simply allow states to set their own marijuana policies without fear of federal intervention.
Gardner could use that legislative win as he trails behind former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in his reelection race. What’s more, President Trump has expressed support for the proposal.
One congressional staffer told Marijuana Moment that they’re skeptical House leaders will ultimately pursue a floor vote of the MORE Act so close to the November election, as the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden remains opposed to adult-use legalization and it could put him on the spot.
Advocates were disappointed after lawmakers declined to include marijuana legalization as part of a recent policing reform bill the House passed. Several legislators made the case that it was an appropriate vehicle for the policy change, as ending cannabis criminalization would minimize police interactions.
Marijuana Moment reached out to the offices of Nadler, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for comment, but they did not respond by the time of publication.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.