Today, for the first time, a chamber of Congress has voted to end the federal prohibition and criminalization of marijuana.
The bill would accomplish this specifically by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.
When House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler first sponsored the MORE Act in the House as a companion bill to now Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’s Senate version, you knew this was carrying more steam out the gate than any type of cannabis effort on Capitol Hill that preceded it.
Now, after a quick stop in the House Rules Committee earlier in the week, this morning’s vote was among the most hyped happenings on the House floor since the now dead-in-the-water stimulus debates raged in hopes of benefitting the many Americans facing a dark economic reality from the pandemic.
While the final victory was stalled by a last minute pitch by Republicans to add workplace drug testing language, it would eventually pass 228 to 164, with 40 abstaining. Six Democrats voted against, while six Republicans voted in favor.
“This is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal, who essentially serves as the main lobbyist of the oldest effort to legalize marijuana on Capitol Hill, said. “This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally prohibited substance and sought to close the rapidly widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies.”
Strekal went on to speak on the impact today’s vote will have on pushing more states toward reforming their marijuana laws. “By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations – arrests which disproportionately fall upon people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”
NORML also noted this vote is on the heels of a 2020 election that saw voters in five more states overwhelmingly decided in favor of ballot measures legalizing marijuana for either medical or adult use. The organization also added that once the newly enacted laws are finally implemented, more than one-third of Americans will live somewhere marijuana is legal.
NORML’s Executive Director Erik Altieri also weighed in on the vote, adding, “By going on the record with this vote, House members have set the stage for a much-needed legislative showdown in 2021 when we will have the Biden administration in office – one that has publicly expressed an appetite for advancing the restorative justice remedies outlined in the MORE Act. We are primed and ready for this legislative debate and we expect, ultimately, to win it.”
Cannabis Caucus co-chairs Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Barbara Lee spoke to the media together following the victory.
“It was an honor for me to see my friend and colleague Barbara Lee, in the chair presiding over the House for this historic vote,” Blumenauer said. “We’ve been partnering on this for several years. And this is an important milestone. The Marijuana Justice Act was incorporated into the MORE (Act). That’s going to make a huge difference for people all across America, as Congress starts to catch up to where the American public is.”
Rep. Blumenauer said the MORE Act would change the game regarding many of the challenges faced by the industry, “but most important is this failed war on drugs. That is so unfair to Americans of color, particularly black and brown. It will stop the federal interference with research. It’ll allow this emerging market to thrive, make it possible for more people to participate and be able to get on with our lives. There are so many things here that are positive.” He closed his initial thoughts by noting the MORE Act was a sign the government is going to stop being a prop when it comes to cannabis and start being a constructive partner.
Rep. Lee called the day a defining moment: “There’s no better way to close out this year than to really begin to atone for the destructive policies brought on by the failed war on drugs.”
She was particularly pleased with how inclusive the MORE Act had been with her previous legislative language around racial justice and cannabis reform. She went on to speak about how cannabis policy of the past and present continue to devastate communities of color, like the Oakland district she represents.
“This is outrageous,” Rep. Lee noted. “This war on drugs has devastated families. It’s prevented many, many people, many thousands of black and brown people, from moving forward based on convictions. And I would say based on unjust laws that allowed for their conviction.”
We asked Rep. Lee what it was like to preside over the chamber as she read off the final vote, considering what her district in Oakland has been through in the years since medical marijuana became legal in California. While sometimes it truly felt the brunt of federal interference in the state legal medical cannabis industry, it’s also where the idea of cannabis equity programs to repair some of the damage done by the drug war started.
“To be in the chair when the final vote came in? It was humbling,” she replied. “But it was also with a deep sense of gratitude for people in my district, many of whom have lost their livelihoods, who’ve been incarcerated, who don’t have a second chance because of these unjust laws.”
The pair posed the most obvious question of the day: What is going to happen to this bill on arrival to the Senate? Where, as Lee noted, over 400 bills have gone to die under the Republican leadership.
Rep. Blumenauer took the high road, replying, “We’re excited because this legislation is the first breakthrough we’ve had. We’ve never had a bill like this on the floor of the House or the Senate. The closest we had was the SAFE Banking Act, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and is sort of locked up in the Senate. But what we have seen is that the public hasn’t waited.”
Rep. Lee also gave her take on the MORE Act’s forthcoming predicament. “Let me let me add to that. This is a question that I get quite a bit about so many bills that we passed in the House,” she replied. “And my response to that is the House is active, the people’s House has listened, and we move forward. We’re elected to do our job. We can’t wait on the Senate. And I think the politics of the Senate is something that the public certainly has to weigh in on.”
Blumenauer was asked about the recent addition of language added in the Rules Committee that disallows anyone who has a previous felony conviction from applying for licenses. This would be a massive barrier to the successful implementation of equity programs.
The Minority Cannabis Business Association noted in a statement ahead of the vote, “Although Minority Cannabis Business Association supports and applauds the social equity provisions including the expungement of records and the establishment of an Opportunity Trust Fund and the Cannabis Justice Office, we have grave concerns over the provisions in this bill that we believe would have an immediate chilling effect on individual members in our community and minority business owners more broadly.”
Blumenauer’s reply to the situation was, “The felony conviction was something that was just lifted from IRS statutes dealing with tobacco and alcohol. I do think that this should be treated differently because of the racial disparities that have been used with the enforcement.”
He went on to speak how personal it is for him as Oregon continues its months-long protests against police brutality. “Night after night, young people, especially young people of color, cry for racial justice in law enforcement, in corrections. And this is an example of where we need to do this. So absolutely, I want to work with them to build on this foundation. We need to take advantage of the opportunities we have in terms of being able to atone for this past discrimination.”
Regardless of where things go from here, the National Cannabis Industry Association was hyped on the win.
“The symbolic and historical importance of the MORE Act passing in the House cannot be overstated,” said Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “This vote stands as a rebuke of failed and harmful prohibition policies, and represents a growing understanding of their racially and economically disparate impacts. Americans are increasingly ready to see cannabis legal for adults and sensibly regulated, which they showed through their representatives today and at the ballot box last month.”