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House gets ready for historic vote on federal marijuana prohibition

This week the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and require federal courts to expunge many prior marijuana offenses. It will be the first time the full House will vote on ending the federal prohibition of cannabis.

Morgan Fox with the National Cannabis Industry Association says House passage would “send a really strong message to not only the rest of Congress, but to a lot of other states that the time to end prohibition has come.”

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act), introduced by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.), would eliminate conflict between state and federal law and allow states to set their own marijuana policies.

“We don't need to have one size fits all. 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,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.), who has long pushed for marijuana legalization.

Jars of marijuana are seen on display at Montana Advanced Caregivers, a medical marijuana dispensary, Nov. 11, 2020, in Billings, Mont. Recreational marijuana initiatives passed in four states this year, from liberal New Jersey to conservative Montana and South Dakota. Advocates' next goal is to get marijuana removed from a federal list of illegal drugs with no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Blumenauer and Rep. Barbara Lee (D., Calif.) — who also wrote parts of the legislation — told Yahoo Finance the bill is a racial justice issue.

“It’s coming at a time when Americans are recognizing how hopelessly flawed the criminal justice system is,” said Blumenauer.

‘You’ve got to repair the damage’

The MORE Act would impose a 5% sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products. The revenue would go toward a new trust fund for grant programs designed to help people “adversely impacted by the War on Drugs” access job training, re-entry services, legal aid, treatment and more. The bill would also provide protections prohibiting denial of federal benefits based on use, possession or conviction for a marijuana offense.

Maesa Story, a worker at Montana Advanced Caregivers, packs a joint with marijuana at the Billings, Mont. medical marijuana dispensary on Nov. 11, 2020. Recreational marijuana initiatives passed in four states this year, from liberal New Jersey to conservative Montana and South Dakota. The results prove how broadly accepted marijuana has become throughout the country and across party lines. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)
Maesa Story, a worker at Montana Advanced Caregivers, packs a joint with marijuana at the Billings, Mont. medical marijuana dispensary on Nov. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

“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,” Lee told Yahoo Finance. “When you've been incarcerated or when you have 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.”

The MORE Act would open up more opportunities for marijuana businesses, including access to Small Business Administration funding. It would also require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to gather demographic data on cannabis business owners and employees to ensure people of color and economically disadvantaged people are taking part in the industry.

“That really sets out a process for equity in the industry. This is a job-creating industry, and it also provides economic opportunities for minority-owned business owners,” said Lee.

Graphic by David Foster/Yahoo Finance
Graphic by David Foster/Yahoo Finance

The House Judiciary Committee passed the MORE Act last year 24 to 10 — Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R., Calif.) were the only Republicans who voted for the bill.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance, McClintock said while he didn’t endorse marijuana, it’s clear U.S. marijuana laws have “not accomplished their goals.”

“These laws have done far more harm than good. 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,” said McClintock.

The House was scheduled to vote on the bill in September, but Democratic leadership postponed the vote because some members in tight races worried passing the MORE Act before a stimulus package could hurt them at the polls.

Nearly a month after the election, there is still no additional coronavirus relief and many Republicans are again slamming Democrats for what they see as prioritizing the cannabis bill over coronavirus relief efforts.

Democrats have already passed two versions of the Heroes Act and argue it’s the Trump administration and Republican Senate that’s holding up stimulus talks.

“Passing the MORE Act is an opportunity to put an end to decades-long racial injustice against Black and brown communities. Maybe some are comfortable letting that fall down the priority list, but we are moving full speed ahead to pass the MORE Act, end the harmful prohibition of cannabis, and continue working to deliver desperately needed COVID relief to families in need,” Lee said in a statement to Yahoo Finance.

‘The momentum is building’

Marijuana proved popular with voters on Election Day, as five states passed legalization measures. In a debate earlier this fall, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris — who introduced the MORE Act in the Senate — pledged a Biden administration would decriminalize marijuana and expunge marijuana-use convictions.

Supporters acknowledge the bill could face an uphill battle in the Senate — especially if Republicans maintain control of the upper chamber. But they argue House passage would be more than a symbolic victory.

“It will allow advocates to be able to really be able to figure out exactly who supports what and help us determine who we still need to convince,” said Fox of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Polls show an increasing number of Americans support relaxing marijuana laws. Last month, Gallup found 68% of adults — a record high percentage — want to see marijuana legalized.

Blumenauer said this issue motivates young voters, and skeptical lawmakers should keep that in mind.

“This is an issue that has galloped ahead of the politicians,” said Blumenauer. “The momentum is building. So if people are going to be on the wrong side of this, there will be a political price that will be paid.”

Jessica Smith is a reporter for Yahoo Finance based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaASmith8.

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