A top House Democrat has reintroduced a bill to federally legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, with provisions to expunge prior cannabis convictions.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, refiled the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act on Wednesday. There are 33 initial cosponsors—all Democrats.
The comprehensive legalization legislation has passed the House twice in recent sessions—but this marks the first time it’s being introduced with Republicans in control of the chamber, raising serious questions about whether it will move. The Judiciary Committee, which is the primary panel of jurisdiction, is chaired by anti-cannabis Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH).
Even the prospects of a modest marijuana banking bill that’s set for committee action in the Senate next week are uncertain in the House under the GOP majority. That said, a GOP-led House panel did advance legislation on Wednesday to prevent the denial of federal employment or security clearances based on a candidate’s past cannabis use.
In any case, advocates have long touted the MORE Act as an example of the type of wide-ranging cannabis reform legislation that would not only end prohibition but take steps to right the wrongs of prohibition and promote social equity.
Here are details about the key provisions of the MORE Act:
Nadler’s MORE Act would deschedule marijuana by removing it from the list of federally banned drugs under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). However, it would not require states to legalize cannabis and would maintain a level of regulatory discretion up to states.
Marijuana products would be subject to a federal excise tax, starting at five percent for the first two years after enactment and rising to eight percent by the fifth year of implementation.
Nobody could be denied federal public benefits based solely on the use or possession of marijuana or past juvenile conviction for a cannabis offense. Federal agencies couldn’t use “past or present cannabis or marijuana use as criteria for granting, denying, or rescinding a security clearance.”
People could not be penalized under federal immigration laws for any cannabis related activity or conviction, whether it occurred before or after the enactment of the legalization legislation.
The bill creates a process for expungements of non-violent federal marijuana convictions.
Tax revenue from cannabis sales would be placed in a new “Opportunity Trust Fund.” Half of those tax dollars would support a “Community Reinvestment Grant Program” under the Justice Department, 10 percent would support substance misuse treatment programs, 40 percent would go to the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) to support implementation and a newly created equitable licensing grant program.
The Community Reinvestment Grant Program would “fund eligible non-profit community organizations to provide a variety of services for individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs…to include job training, reentry services, legal aid for civil and criminal cases (including for expungement of cannabis convictions), among others.”
The program would further support funding for substance misuse treatment for people from communities disproportionately impacted by drug criminalization. Those funds would be available for programs offering services to people with substance misuse disorders for any drug, not just cannabis.
While the bill wouldn’t force states to adopt legalization, it would create incentives to promote equity. For example, SBA would facilitate a program to providing licensing grants to states and localities that have moved to expunge records for people with prior marijuana convictions or “taken steps to eliminate violations or other penalties for persons still under State or local criminal supervision for a cannabis-related offense or violation for conduct now lawful under State or local law.”
The bill’s proposed Cannabis Restorative Opportunity Program would provide funds “for loans to assist small business concerns that are owned and controlled by individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs in eligible States and localities.”
The comptroller general, in consultation with the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), would be required to carry out a study on the demographics of people who have faced federal marijuana convictions, “including information about the age, race, ethnicity, sex, and gender identity.”
The departments of treasury, justice and the SBA would need to “issue or amend any rules, standard operating procedures, and other legal or policy guidance necessary to carry out implementation of the MORE Act” within one year of its enactment.
Marijuana producers and importers would also need to obtain a federal permit. And they would be subject to a $1,000 per year federal tax as well for each premise they operate.
The bill would impose certain packaging and labeling requirements.
It also prescribes penalties for unlawful conduct such as illegal, unlicensed production or importation of cannabis products.
The Treasury secretary would be required to carry out a study “on the characteristics of the cannabis industry, with recommendations to improve the regulation of the industry and related taxes.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) would be required to “regularly compile, maintain, and make public data on the demographics” of marijuana business owners and workers.
Workers in “safety sensitive” positions, such as those regulated by the Department of Transportation, could continue to be drug tested for THC and face penalties for unauthorized use. Federal workers would also continue to be subject to existing drug testing policies.
References to “marijuana” or “marihuana” under federal statute would be changed to “cannabis.” It’s unclear if that would also apply to the title of the bill itself.
Some advocates say that the MORE Act’s time has passed, however, and that it doesn’t realistically grapple with the need to enact truly justice-focused legalization through a fair and equitable market.
“The MORE Act was never meant to be a bill to address the real needs of federal regulations,” Shaleen Title, founder and director, Parabola Center for Law and Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “It was a historic bill when it was first introduced to address systemic racial disparities and demonstrate that social justice must be addressed in federal reform, but has never fully addressed the economic justice side of the equation.”
“We’re in a period of rapid corporate consolidation, with a real possibility that big pharmaceutical corporations will be entering the industry in the near future,” she said. “Outdated legalization bills like this would quickly allow for monopolization, putting small farmers and mom-and-pop shops out of business and undermining the public health and racial equity goals of most state cannabis programs. They should all be updated with an intentional regulatory structure and a thoughtful plan to transition to a national market.”
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Again, the chances of Republican leadership allowing the Democratic-led legalization bill to advance are dubious. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has backed certain cannabis banking and research legislation, but he voted against the MORE Act when it was on the floor last Congress.
Also, key House committees led by Republicans have blocked multiple bipartisan cannabis amendments from floor consideration as part of various spending packages this session.
The reintroduction of the MORE Act also comes amid a federal cannabis scheduling review that President Joe Biden directed last year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has advised the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to move marijuana to Schedule III after completing its scientific review.
While a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report released this month said it was “likely” DEA would follow suit based on precedent, the law enforcement agency does not have to adhere to the HHS recommendation.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen House and Senate Republicans sent a letter to the head of DEA last week urging the agency to “reject” the HHS analysis and keep marijuana in Schedule I.
Another GOP lawmaker, Rep. Greg Murphy (R-NC), separately sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra last week that voices concern about the agency’s rescheduling recommendation and prompts the official with several questions about how it reached its decision.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.