'A matter of justice': Congress moves closer to decriminalizing marijuana with House passage of MORE Act

Chelsey Cox
  • Congress will vote on the MORE Act to decriminalize marijuana Friday.
  • The bill is one of a number introduced recently to decriminalize and tax the drug.
  • The bill is expected to pass in Congress but not the Senate.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have weighed the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana for years, with some launching ambitious legislation to reduce criminal penalties for possession, levy taxes on and monitor the sale and distribution of the drug.

But dozens of bills introduced since the 1970s have yet to become law.

Advocates hope this time will be different. The Democratic-controlled House Friday passed the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act by a 220-204 vote that fell almost entirely along party lines. The measure not only would decriminalize the substance, it also would impose an excise tax on cannabis products made in or imported into the U.S. as well as levy an occupational tax on production facilities and export warehouse.

“This is a matter of justice and equal opportunity," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said before Friday's vote. "It is about addressing systemic inequities and reforming our criminal justice system so that America can become a better, stronger, and fairer nation."

The measure now heads to the Senate where few expect it to pass.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., introduced the MORE Act in 2019. The House approved the act in 2020, but it stalled in a Republican-controlled Senate. 

Lawmakers in the House have already proposed several amendments to the MORE Act, from researching the policy impacts to additional restrictions on cannabis products. But the bill is unlikely to reach the 60 votes needed to make it from the Senate to the president's desk.

"There isn't just the appetite for something like that in the Senate," said Michael Correia, director of government relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association. 

A lobbyist for the cannabis industry for nine years, Correia says senators tend to be older and more conservative than House members. "They're not as evolved on the cannabis issue," he said.

A vote on such a high-profile decriminalization bill ahead of the November midterm elections will be an indicator for legalization advocates heading to the polls, says Morgan Fox, political director of marijuana advocacy foundation, NORML.

"I think it's going to be very important in that advocates will be able to have a better idea of where lawmakers stand on this issue and where they might need some more education and touch points," Fox said. "But also, it will help inform voters going into the midterms who support cannabis policy reform and want to see candidates that are willing to support those measures."

A vast majority of U.S. adults, 91%, say marijuana should be legal for medical or recreational use, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Lawmakers are listening as well as considering other recently introduced bills focused on decriminalizing the substance. Here's a look at other related legislation:

Legislation to decriminalize marijuana comes up in the House, one of many recent legislative efforts at the federal level.

The States Reform Act

In November, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., introduced the States Reform Act, which leaves the decriminalization of marijuana up to individual states.

The bill "seeks to remove cannabis from Schedule I in a manner consistent with the rights of states to determine what level of cannabis reform each state already has, or not," said Mace in a statement.

Schedule I drugs are those with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

"It will not make it legal for everybody to use it. If you don’t like cannabis reform, you don’t have to do it. If you do, we are legalizing what you are already doing. These businesses would be handled like a company distributing alcohol," Mace told the Charleston Mercury.

Her bill also imposes a 3% excise tax on cannabis products and a 10-year moratorium on excise tax increases to ensure competitive footing in the market.

The States Reform Act is in competition with the MORE Act in the House, and Mace recently stated there was “no quid pro quo” on a contingent "yes" vote on the MORE Act.

SAFE Banking Act

Rep. Earl Perlmutter, D-Colo., first introduced in 2013 a version of the SAFE Banking Act to protect financial institutions providing banking services to licensed cannabis businesses. It has passed the House six times, most recently in February as an amendment to the America COMPETES Act.

Since cannabis remains illegal under federal law, financial institutions that service cannabis businesses are vulnerable to criminal prosecution under several federal statutes. As a result, some businesses that legally grow and distribute cannabis are locked out of the banking system. The SAFE Banking Act establishes a safe harbor for depository banks servicing legitimate cannabis-related businesses that are licensed by state or local government.

The bill also protects ancillary businesses, such as electricians, plumbers and landlords against federal regulators. 

The Senate advanced an amended version of the America COMPETES Act on March 28 without provisions from the SBA.

Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act

Similar to the States Reform Act, the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act co-sponsored by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, would allow states to determine their own cannabis laws without the obstacle of federal prohibition. A draft proposal of the bill was released on July 14; Schumer could formally introduce the bill in April.

Under the bill, cannabis would be removed from the banned substance list and regulated by federal agencies, including the DEA, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and the Food and Drug Administration.

The bill also features a Community Reinvestment Grant Program to fund nonprofits providing services to individuals adversely impacted by the federal War on Drugs  initiative from the 1970s to the present day. Two programs to be implemented by the Small Business Administration would make loans available to assist small businesses in the cannabis industry.

The programs would be funded by an excise tax on products not surpassing 10% in the year of enactment and rising incrementally to 25% by the fifth year. 

CAOA is similar to the Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021 sponsored by Rep. Nydia Velaquez, D-N.Y., and the Homegrown Act of 2021 sponsored by Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Pa. Both bills would remove cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances, offer protections to small businesses and, in the case of the Homegrown Act, safeguards individuals dealing in cannabis from criminal penalties.

Where do these bills stand?

Correia says the States Reform Act has more bipartisan support in the Senate as an incremental reform measure, unlike the MORE Act or the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act, which are more comprehensive.

"Only comprehensive reform will address the harms of the war on drugs, which is true," Correia said. "But the votes aren't there. Whereas the votes are there for something like (the SRA)."

The passage of the MORE Act in the House will build momentum for future legislation, according to Fox.

"I think that the most important factor here is that passage of the MORE Act will not only help promote keeping to the timeline for introduction of CAOA, but will also help to engender real substantive discussions in the Senate about comprehensive descheduling legislation as well as incremental legislation such as the SAFE Banking Act," Fox said. 

Where marijuana has been legalized

Small amounts of cannabis are legalized in a number of states for recreational or medical use. The drug is legal in 18 states, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and the District of Columbia for recreational use.

Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana by lessening possession of certain small, personal consumption amounts from a state crime to a civil or local misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time.

Proposed legislation to legalize cannabis was introduced or was carried over from 2021 in 25 states this year, but they are still under consideration in only 10: Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

Correia and Fox say decriminalization is a necessary step in repairing the damage inflicted by the War on Drugs, including disparate incarceration rates and uneven access to employment and education.

"Removing cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances will allow us to be able to regulate this substance along the lines of alcohol," Fox said. "Not only that, but the benefits of moving a unregulated industry into a regulated, legitimate tax paying market cannot be overstated."

During a press conference Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she is all for decriminalizing marijuana.

“There's so many discussions that have gone on over the years about the use of marijuana or cannabis or whatever,” Pelosi said. “The fact is, it exists, it's being used. We’ve got to address how it is treated legally and not in a way that mistreats people on the lower income scale.”

But critics say regulation and taxing are doing little more than covering up a larger problem. The group Smart Approaches to Marijuana supports the decriminalization of low-level marijuana possession, but asserts drug policy should discourage drug use, that cannabis users report worse outcomes than people who consume alcohol or tobacco and that a black market for marijuana persists despite decriminalization.

"In short, we see legalizing marijuana as creating another Big Tobacco, causing widespread harm by making marijuana more potent, more addictive, and more widespread through promotion,"said Luke Niforatos, executive vice president of SAM . Sabet added that tobacco corporation Altria has already invested $2 billion in the marijuana industry.

But full federal decriminalization might still be years in the making if the Senate cannot come to a consensus.

Correia says that the GOP as a whole "are not really comfortable with federal legalization."

"That's something we've been working on for years. But even across the board, you can't say Democrats, especially senators, are jumping up and down and demanding federal legalization of cannabis laws," Correia said. "And you don't even have the White House giving signals that they're supportive of something like that. So, there's a lot of educating that still needs to be done."

Reach out to Chelsey Cox on Twitter at @therealco.