House Votes to Legalize Cannabis
History was made on Friday when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a landmark bill that would end the federal prohibition on cannabis and expunge low-level marijuana offenses.
The Democratic-controlled House passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (More) Act by a vote of 228-164. The sweeping legislation (H.R. 3884), which was introduced last year by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and establish a federal excise tax on cannabis products.
The vote, while "bipartisan," was mostly along party lines. Five Republicans and one Independent joined 222 Democrats in voting for the bill's passage. Meanwhile, six Democrats and 158 Republicans voted against it.
According to advocacy group NORML, Friday’s vote “marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance.”
A companion version of the bill was first introduced by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) in the Republican-controlled Senate last year. However, it stands almost no chance of passing before the end of the 116th Congress.
As written, here’s what the MORE Act would do:
- Remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act
- Permit states to establish their own laws relating to marijuana
- Decriminalize cannabis and require federal courts to expunge certain cannabis-related offenses within one year of its passage
- Impose a federal excise tax on legal cannabis products that starts at 5% for the first two years after implementation and increases by 1% each year until reaching a cap of 8%
- Create a “Cannabis Justice Office” tasked with establishing and administering grants to “individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs"
- Direct the Small Business Administration to create a “Cannabis Opportunity Program” and make loans to “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals"
- Require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to compile and maintain data on the demographics of owners and employees of cannabis businesses
It is unlikely the MORE Act will be taken up in the Senate. Nevertheless, several cannabis industry stakeholders cheered its passage on Friday afternoon.
“People have been fighting for a more progressive federal perspective on cannabis for generations, and today’s vote in the U.S. House of Representatives is historic,” Cresco Labs CEO Charlie Bachtell said via a statement.
Joseph Lusardi, the CEO of the country's largest multistate cannabis firm, Curaleaf, also weighed in on Twitter.
“We at Curaleaf strongly support any initiative to end the conflict between federal and state positions on cannabis," he wrote. "I applaud the U.S. House of Representatives for their bipartisan support for this historic vote on the MORE Act."
“It indicates that federal lawmakers are finally listening to the overwhelming majority of Americans who are in favor of ending prohibition,” said Marijuana Policy Project executive director Steven Hawkins.
Indeed, 68% of Americans now support federal cannabis legalization, according to a recent Gallup poll. Meanwhile, 15 states have legalized cannabis for adults over the age of 21, while 36 states have legalized medical marijuana. Washington D.C. has also legalized cannabis for medical and adult use.
Moreover, One-third of Americans now live in states that permit the sale of recreational cannabis to adults over the age of 21 after voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota last month approved ballot measures legalizing marijuana. A medical marijuana bill also passed in Mississippi.
Despite overwhelming public support for federal cannabis legalization and increasing access to both recreational and medical marijuana across the country, it doesn’t look like the MORE Act will come up in the Senate during a lame-duck session.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — himself an outspoken supporter of the hemp industry — has consistently opposed broader cannabis reform initiatives and has said he would "not consider comprehensive marijuana legislation," according to Politico.
Nonetheless, leaders from trade groups like the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) view Friday’s vote — which was originally scheduled for September — as a step in the right direction.
“This vote stands as a rebuke of failed and harmful prohibition policies, and represents a growing understanding of their racially and economically disparate impacts,” NCIA chief Aaron Smith said. “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.”
In an email, Smith said Friday’s vote “provides momentum” for the NCIA’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and “sends a strong message of congressional intent to the incoming Biden Administration.”
During a debate that preceded the final vote on Friday, MORE Act co-sponsor Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) called the bill “flawed” but said he would nonetheless vote for its passage because “the federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana for a generation.”
Gaetz argued that current federal cannabis policy “constrains our people and limits our states,” while also pushing for the passage of the STATES Act, a separate piece of federal cannabis legislation, during the 117th Congress.
“I am going to vote for the MORE Act,” he said. “It won’t pass the Senate. It won’t become law. But then we should come back in the 117th Congress and we should truly do more for our people.”
Other House Republicans spent much of their time criticizing Democrats for bringing the bill to the floor instead of working on a new round of coronavirus relief.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, gave an impassioned speech urging his colleagues to pass the MORE Act while pointing out the myriad ways that Congress has "failed" with respect to cannabis reform.
According to Blumenauer, the absence of a regulated system means cannabis research is restricted, children have easier access to illegal marijuana, and businesses are unable to access financial services — which invites money laundering, theft and tax evasion, he said.
"It's time for Congress to step up and do its part," he said. "We need to catch up with the rest of the American people."
For his part, Nadler tweeted that the MORE Act was a “common-sense bill," and said he introduced it to “provide restorative justice, modernize America's cannabis laws, and deliver meaningful investments to America's communities & small businesses.”
Speaking to The New York Times, Nadler said the “effects of marijuana prohibition have been particularly felt by communities of color because it has meant that people from the communities couldn’t get jobs.”
Federal cannabis legalization has the potential to usher in a wave of much-needed job creation at a time when millions of Americans have filed for unemployment amid the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Marijuana Business Factbook, the number of full-time equivalent cannabis industry jobs is expected to reach nearly 300,000 this year, and that figure could climb to 575,000 by 2024.
Several other prominent U.S. lawmakers have issued statements regarding Friday's vote.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the MORE Act “finally secures justice for those negatively impacted by the brutal, unfair consequences of criminalization.”
“Today, with the bipartisan MORE Act, the House has proudly passed one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history,” she said. “This momentous step helps end the devastating injustices of the criminalization of marijuana that have disproportionately impacted low income communities and communities of color, and reflects the overwhelming will of the American people.”
(Editor's Note: For additional reactions to today’s vote, head over to Marijuana Moment, which has cataloged responses from both sides of the aisle.)
The MORE Act is the second cannabis bill to pass the House. Last September, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act by a vote of 321-103. That measure, which would protect financial institutions that work with state-approved cannabis companies, was the first stand-alone cannabis bill to pass through either chamber of the U.S. Congress.
Even though the MORE Act is expected to die in the Senate, the bill — or another one like — could be reintroduced during the next session of Congress.
Looking ahead, Democrats will continue to hold a majority in the House, but control of the Senate comes down to a runoff election in Georgia on January 5, 2021. Depending on the outcome of those two races, Democrats could end up with a majority in both chambers of Congress, and move to advance a cannabis legalization measure.
President-elect Joe Biden supports decriminalization, and it's unclear if he would sign a federal cannabis legalization bill into law.