Nearly every state in the union has legalized some form of marijuana use, either for medical purposes or for recreation. Just this Election Day, four more states legalized recreational pot, joining eleven others (plus DC) that have already made the move. And soon, the U.S. House of Representatives could vote to loosen national restrictions even further.
The House is expected to vote on a bill that will remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, which currently ranks pot alongside opiates and heroin as a highly dangerous drug. The bill would also require federal courts to expunge many prior marijuana convictions, giving those with pot-related criminal histories a fresh start. The motion will mark the first time the full House will vote on eliminating the federal prohibition on cannabis.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) is sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler. The New York Democrat hopes that the MORE Act will end current conflicts between state and federal laws, allowing states to set their own marijuana policies. While the bill will not legalize the substance nationwide, it would change the way the federal government penalizes marijuana violations.
“We don’t need to have one size fits all,” says Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who has long advocated for marijuana legalization. “We just need to get rid of prohibition and then let the states do what the states are doing. It’s essentially what the states have done already. They haven’t waited for the federal government, which is why we have a lot of these discrepancies and challenges.”
Blumenauer says that the legislation is not just about relaxing federal marijuana codes. Rather, he says that the expungement part of the bill is an issue of racial justice.
“It’s coming at a time when Americans are recognizing how hopelessly flawed the criminal justice system is,” the congressman said. Blumenauer argues that Black Americans have disproportionately suffered under current drug policy, leading to incarceration and lifelong felon status for those who have partaken in an indulgence that many states have now made legal. By relaxing the federal code and expunging records, the MORE Act can help heal communities ravaged by draconian drug policy.
As part of the racial justice angle, the MORE Act would impose a 5% sales tax on marijuana and related products. That revenue would then go toward a new trust fund for programs to help those “adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.” Such programs would offer job training, re-entry services, legal aid, treatment and other services. Additionally, the bill would prohibit the denial of federal benefits based on use, possession or conviction for a marijuana offense.
“Regardless of who you are, if you’ve been incarcerated and if you’ve done your time and you get out, you should be provided for a second chance,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, Democrat of California. “When you’ve been incarcerated or when you have a record based on unjust laws — they’re really targeted in many ways, Black and Brown people — then you’ve got to make restitution. You’ve got to repair the damage. This fund is about the time that was lost because of barriers to employment, because of incarceration.”
A Chance in the Senate?
While the MORE Act enjoys support in the Democrat-controlled House, it may have a tougher time passing through the Republican-controlled Senate. But it would be a mistake to assume that Republicans unilaterally oppose pot reform. Just this month, the ruby-red states of Montana and South Dakota chose to legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over.
Meanwhile, in the House Judiciary Committee where the bill originated, two Republicans voted in favor of advancing the bill. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Rep. Tom McClintock of California both supported the bill, and their rationale might foreshadow how other Republicans consider the issue.
McClintock, for instance, says he does not endorse marijuana, but argues that U.S. marijuana laws have “not accomplished their goals.”
“These laws have done far more harm than good,” McClintock says. “They’ve created a violent underground economy and ruined the lives of so many young people who’ve had a youthful marijuana conviction, follow them and ruin their lives.”
Whether the bill makes it to the Senate or beyond, most Americans have already embraced more lenient views on the drug. Last month, a Gallup poll found that 68% of Americans supported legalizing pot.