The House Judiciary Committee approved a 2019 bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and end cannabis prohibition on Wednesday. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act passed by a vote of 24 to 10 after more than two hours of debate. Two Republican representatives, Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Tom McClintock (R-CA), joined the 22 Democrats who voted for the bill. This marks the first time a marijuana legalization bill has been approved by a congressional committee.
The MORE Act was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), which has several critical components. First, it would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level by de-scheduling it from the Controlled Substances Act. Second, it gives states varying incentives to expunge the criminal records of people with low-level marijuana offenses. Third, it instates a 5% tax on cannabis products that would go towards programs benefiting communities that have suffered most from the War on Drugs.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said in his opening statement:
For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of a matter of personal choice and public health. Whatever one’s views on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating users at the federal level is unwise and unjust.”
While some Republicans argued that the bill was moving too quickly, others appeared to agree with Chairman Nadler’s sentiments but instead pushed for action on the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act. The STATES Act would simply allow states to determine their own cannabis policies.
Several amendments were introduced during the markup:
- Chairman Nadler put forth an amendment that added a “findings” section, which noted the racial disparities in prohibition enforcement and the lack of equity for communities targeted by the War on Drugs (approved).
- Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) put forth a proposal to require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct a study examining the demographic characteristics of people convicted of federal marijuana offenses (approved).
- Cedric Richmond (D-LA) filed an amendment to widen the justice reinvestment provisions. For example, the amendment clarifies that those provisions directed at helping people most harmed by the War on Drugs are not limited to programs that help on an individual-level, they can also include programs like community-wide mentorship programs (approved).
- Ken Buck (R-CO) filed an amendment requiring the GAO to study the societal impact of legalization (approved).
- Buck also set forth another amendment that would replace major provisions of the MORE Act with the STATES Act (defeated on voice vote).
As with the SAFE Banking Act, the MORE Act still faces a long road towards becoming law. Seven more House committees must approve or waive the bill before it even gets a vote by the full House. And while it’s certainly possible that it could pass in the Democratic House, it then must face the Republican-controlled Senate. Committee member Ken Buck (R-CO) cautioned:
I don’t think a majority of the Republicans will support this bill. It is even less likely that the Senate would take it up. Therefore, I would just suggest that we deal with other bills that we can get a much larger bipartisan support from.”