Congress could decriminalize marijuana, but that won’t make it legal everywhere

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that decriminalizes cannabis on the federal level. The bill will now go to the Senate, where its fate could be determined by which party has the majority. 

U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris are the sponsors of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, first filed in July 2019. The bill would remove marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates federal criminal penalties for individuals who manufacture, distribute or possess cannabis.

The bill also provides a method for expunging some federal cannabis charges and setting up review hearings on other charges. Only people with “nonviolent” past cannabis convictions would be eligible for expungement and re-sentencing and they specifically exclude high-level traffickers, according to the Drug Policy Alliance 

The MORE Act would also make U.S. Small Business Administration loans and services available to cannabis-related businesses or service providers. It also would require a 5 percent federal tax on cannabis products, which would fund regulatory oversight, expungements and resentencing procedures as well as research on the effects of cannabis legalization.  

2019 report from Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing adult cannabis use with 91 percent in favor of legalizing medical cannabis.

Lawmakers and advocates of cannabis decriminalization say it’s unlikely the Senate will vote on the MORE Act before senators adjourn for the holiday recess.  

“There is no expectation that the Senate will take up the bill in the last week of this lame duck session. But by going on the record with this vote, House members have set the stage for a much-needed legislative showdown in 2021 when there will be Biden Administration in office — one that has publicly expressed an appetite for advancing the restorative justice remedies outlined in the MORE Act,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).  If the Senate does approve MORE Act, the bill’s passage would not mean adult cannabis use would  become nationwide 

By delisting cannabis as a scheduled substance, the MORE Act would also eliminate conflicting federal and state cannabis laws by giving states freedom to make their own decisions about cannabis without being in violation federal law, Armentano said.  

This mimics the federal repeal of alcohol decades ago. The state laws will be the predominant laws guiding marijuana policy — just as states today largely set their own individual alcohol policies. In states where marijuana-related activities are currently illegal, such activities will continue to be so absent some change in state law,” he explained.  

Congress reconvenes after the new year begins.  

Of the 106 House members representing districts in the South, three Republicans voted “yes” to the MORE Act. No Democrats opposed the measure while 18 members abstained.

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