Is marijuana legalization about to go federal? Congressional leaders took the massive and potentially historic first step on Friday, when they introduced the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act of 2021, or “The MORE Act of 2021”.
The stated purpose of the MORE Act of 2021: “To decriminalize and deschedule cannabis, to provide for reinvestment in certain persons adversely impacted by the War on Drugs, to provide for expungement of certain cannabis offenses, and for other purposes.”
The legislation was brought by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, the longtime Democrat from New York, along with members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.
The significance of the proposal can’t be overstated. If it passed, it would end the federal prohibition on marijuana—something a growing number of cities and states across the country have already done.
“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. Our federal laws must keep up with this pace,” Nadler said in a statement. “I’m proud to reintroduce the MORE Act to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, remove the needless burden of marijuana convictions on so many Americans, and invest in communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs.”
Why The MORE Act of 2021 Is Crucial
The MORE Act of 2021 places heavy emphasis on remedying the racial inequities of the War on Drugs, with the bill noting that “communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition are benefiting the least from the legal marijuana marketplace,” and that “legacy of racial and ethnic injustices, compounded by the disproportionate collateral consequences of 80 years of cannabis prohibition enforcement, now limits participation in the industry.”
Along with removing marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act, the bill requires “federal courts to expunge prior convictions, allows prior offenders to request expungement, and requires courts, on motion, to conduct re-sentencing hearings for those still under supervision.”
The MORE Act of 2021 also authorizes “the assessment of a 5% sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products to create an Opportunity Trust Fund,” which includes three grant programs focused on providing training to “individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs,” “funds for loans to assist small businesses in the marijuana industry that are owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals,” and “funds for programs that minimize barriers to marijuana licensing and employment for the individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.”
From the sweeping marijuana reforms implemented on the state level, to public polling showing wide majorities in support of legalization, there is plenty of reason to feel bullish on the bill’s prospects.
There is also, crucially, political will to pass the law on Capitol Hill. In April, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made it clear that he and his fellow Democrats were eager to press forward on legalization—even though President Joe Biden has thus far shown reluctance to get behind the policy.
“We will move forward,” Schumer said at the time. “[Biden] said he’s studying the issue, so [I] obviously want to give him a little time to study it. I want to make my arguments to him, as many other advocates will. But at some point we’re going to move forward, period.”
Schumer said his own evolution on the issue was shaped by the changes made at the state level.
“In 2018, I was the first member of the Democratic leadership to come out in support of ending the federal prohibition. I’m sure you ask, “Well what changed?” Well, my thinking evolved. When a few of the early states—Oregon and Colorado—wanted to legalize, all the opponents talked about the parade of horribles: Crime would go up. Drug use would go up. Everything bad would happen,” Schumer said.
“The legalization of states worked out remarkably well. They were a great success. The parade of horribles never came about, and people got more freedom. And people in those states seem very happy.”
Congressman Speaks Out for Sha’Carri Richardson
Congressman from Tennessee Steven Cohen on Wednesday joined the chorus of condemnation against the decision to ban United States sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson from the Tokyo Olympics after she tested positive for marijuana.
Speaking at a hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Steve Cohen mocked the reasoning offered up for Richardson’s one-month suspension.
“Marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug unless you’re entered in the Coney Island hot dog eating contest on the Fourth of July,” said Congressman Cohen, a Democrat who represents Tennessee’s ninth district. “To take her right to appear, her dream, away from her, is absurd.”
Richardson, 21, is set to miss this summer’s Olympics after a positive marijuana test rendered her results at the U.S. track and field Olympic trials invalid. She won the 100-meter dash at the trials last month in Oregon and was a favorite to win gold in Tokyo.
Marijuana is banned under the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances, and both the United States Anti-Doping Agency and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee adhere to the global body’s code.
The USADA explains that marijuana is banned because it could pose a health and safety risk to athletes and that cannabis can be performance-enhancing for some.
That latter explanation has been roundly mocked, including by Congressman Cohen on Wednesday. The congressman used his time at the hearing, which dealt with a reform effort to end sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine, to excoriate the War on Drugs and call on fellow members of Congress to deschedule and decriminalize pot.
Congressman Cohen Goes Off on Failed War on Drugs
“Congress should see that we don’t have these problems in the future. We deschedule marijuana. We leave it up to the states. If [Richardson had] gotten rip-roaring drunk on margaritas, Red Bull or whatever else you drink out there these days, lagers, she’d have been fine because it wouldn’t have shown up in her system, and if it had shown up in her system––if she’d have been .02 alcohol––she still would have been allowed to run,” Congressman Cohen said.
“But for marijuana, that could have been 20 days ago, and just a puff or two, she’s gone. So let’s get real. The War on Drugs is a total failure. Nancy Reagan was wrong. Everybody who followed her and the others who said, ‘Just say no,’ were wrong because that wasn’t sufficient. Let’s pass this bill, and let’s decriminalize marijuana, and let’s get our people to where they are not being afflicted by the cultural lag of the United States Congress,” he added
After the positive test result was made public, Richardson appeared on the Today show to apologize to fans and express regret for the decision.
“I want to take responsibility for my actions,” Richardson said. “I know what I did and what I’m not supposed to do. I know what I’m not allowed to do, and I still made that decision. Not making an excuse or looking for any empathy in my case but being in that position of my life and finding out something like that—something that I would say has impacted my life positively and negatively in my life when it comes to dealing with the relationship with my mother—that definitely was a heavy topic on me.”
At a time when a growing number of states have legalized recreational marijuana use, Richardson’s suspension feels like a relic of a previous era. And legalization looks poised to go federal.
In May, Congressman Cohen’s Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives introduced the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act of 2021, which would decriminalize and deschedule cannabis. And last week, Democrats in the Senate introduced their own marijuana reform legislation.
Republican Lawmakers Want Biden to Reclassify Cannabis
Yes, you read the lede right. Republicans are asking Biden, a Democrat, to reschedule weed once and for all.
Representatives Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Don Young (R-AK) both serve as co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. They recently sent a letter to Biden asking for rescheduling and claiming the issue is “a matter of public health.”
Despite all the work that has been happening at the state level to legalize medical and recreational cannabis, it is still classified federally as a Schedule I drug in the U.S., as most cannabis enthusiasts well know. This puts it in the same category with drugs like heroin that are known to be much more harmful. The classification means that cannabis has no medical value and a high potential for abuse in the country’s eyes.
“As a Schedule I substance, cannabis is not accepted for medical use on the federal level, which has caused significant research restrictions and continues to thwart the treatment of a wide range of patients, including those suffering from cancer as well as veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and people living with Multiple Sclerosis and seizure disorders,” the letter explains regarding the status of cannabis.
However, while this isn’t just a desire from these Republican Congressmen, but from the rest of the U.S. as well, it isn’t as easy as getting Biden to sign something into effect. The secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services or another outside party first has to file a petition, and then the attorney general has to review that petition. The attorney general can also choose to waive that right and let the DEA review the petition instead.
The attorney general can also request a scientific review directly from the Department of Health and Human Services. If this happens, the FDA would assess cannabis before submitting a review to the Justice Department. Then, the last step after all that work is a formal move to reschedule.
Republicans Want Rescheduling
While that is a lot of work, even Republicans believe it is high time. The letter claims that “initial research has shown cannabis to be a significantly less addictive yet effective pain-management alternative” to opioids.
“As our nation continues to grapple with the opioid epidemic and the record-breaking death toll it caused amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot afford to sideline safer alternatives in the name of arcane regulations,” it continues. “Each day cannabis remains overly scheduled, patients and researchers across the United States continue to lose access to life-saving therapies and data.”
And Joyce and Young’s cannabis activism doesn’t end there. They also recently filed a bill to federally deschedule cannabis on their own.
The bill, called The Common Sense Cannabis Reform for Veterans, Small Businesses, and Medical Professionals Act, goes a bit further than past proposed bills, as language actually specifies protections for federal studies into medical cannabis and mandates for that to happen within a certain period. It does, however, fail to include social justice provisions that would help heal the wounds of the War on Drugs.
While rescheduling is a big project, and the Republican lawmakers speaking out in this case could stand to put more focus on social reform, they are still sending a strong message by standing up to the president and demanding he reschedule cannabis.
Biden is still anti adult-use cannabis, as he reiterated last week when the topic of legalization came up. There may still be some serious work to do before cannabis strides are made under this administration.
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