House Reintroduces Cannabis Decriminalization Bill

In May, the House of Representatives reintroduced a bill to legalize cannabis and develop social equity programs.

After overwhelmingly voting to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level last year, House leaders proposed a bill on Friday to remove marijuana from the list of banned substances and invest in communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021, commonly known as the MORE Act, would also erase criminal penalties, cleanse criminal records, and establish social equity initiatives aimed at healing the harm caused by decades of prohibition to individuals and communities.

Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, D-New York, presented the bill.

“Since I introduced the MORE Act last Congress, numerous states across the nation, including my home state of New York, have moved to legalize marijuana,” Nadler said in a statement. “Our federal laws must keep up with this pace.”

Last year, the bill died in the Senate, as did a companion bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senators Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, are set to present a second bill later this year.

The new law includes stronger social justice provisions aimed at addressing the generational costs of prohibition, such as the removal of wording that would have barred applicants with felony cannabis convictions from receiving federal licenses.

The law would impose a 5% tax on cannabis retail sales, which would rise to 8% after three years. The money raised would go to the Opportunity Trust Fund, which would help impacted communities with job training, re-entry assistance, legal aid, and health education programs.

It would also establish an Office of Cannabis Justice to supervise social equity components, prohibit the federal government from penalizing cannabis users who rely on social programs, and expand research opportunities.

The Cannabis Restorative Opportunity Program would be established by the Small Business Administration to assist enterprises owned and run by “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.” The SBA mandate would require the development and implementation of fair cannabis licensing programs that remove barriers for those who have been harmed by the drug war.

“The whole intention and vision behind this bill is that it would repair past harms of drug prohibition,” said Drug Policy Alliance National Affairs Director Maritza Perez. “We’re hoping that another successful House vote would continue to pile on momentum.”

Despite progress toward decriminalization, existing drug restrictions continue to disproportionately affect people of color. According to a 2020 research by the American Civil Liberties Union, black people are three times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession. According to the ACLU, enforcing cannabis prohibition laws costs taxpayers $3.6 billion each year.

Medical Marijuana Inc. CEO Stuart Titus says the bill will give many people a “fresh start.”

However, Titus believes that passing cannabis legislation will need a “herculean effort,” and that Democrats will need to gain more Republican backing if they want to eliminate prohibition.

The December 2020 vote marked the first time an entire chamber of Congress took up the question of decriminalizing cannabis on a federal level. While 222 Democrats voted in support of approving the MORE Act, only six voted against it. It received five Republican votes in favor and 158 votes against.

“This has historic ramifications,” said Titus. “We have an entire industry here that is about to take off.”

According to the bill, legal cannabis sales reached $20 billion in 2020 and are expected to more than double by 2025.

The federal government has relied on an uneasy ceasefire with states that have chosen to craft their own cannabis laws for nearly a decade. Currently, recreational cannabis is allowed in 17 states, two territories, and Washington, D.C.

Medical marijuana is permitted in 36 states and two territories.

The conflict between state and federal law has contributed to a lack of clarity about consumers’ rights to purchase and use cananbis.

According Michigan-based cannabis company Exclusive Brands CDO Narmin Jarrous, her primary care doctor just dropped her when she tested positive for marijuana. Jarrous suffers from endometriosis-related chronic pain and prefers marijuana to stronger pain relievers like Vicodin and opioids.

“If it’s happening to me, I know it’s happening to [other] patients,” she said. “It was such an absurd policy, in my opinion, and it just shows how much work we have to do as a society.”

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