A key House committee on Wednesday formally advanced a bill to federally legalize marijuana to the floor, making in order a number of amendments and blocking others as part of a final rule. A full chamber vote is expected on Friday.
The House Rules Committee took up the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, discussing proposed revisions, mostly from GOP lawmakers seeking to insert additional restrictions into the reform measure.
The MORE Act, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances, promote equity in the industry and impose a federal tax on marijuana products to fund various initiatives.
At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) said that the legislation would “address our nation’s failed approach to the war on drugs” and “put racial justice at the heart of our nation’s federal cannabis policy.”
He noted racial disparities in marijuana enforcement, emphasizing that “none of us should be OK with a system that treats people differently based on the color of their skin” and “no life should be destroyed by decades of failed policy.”
“It’s past time that we show the moral courage to do something about it,” McGovern said.
In his opening remarks, Nadler said that his legislation would “reverse decades of failed federal policies based on the criminalization of marijuana” and “also take steps to address the heavy toll these policies have taken across the country, particularly amongst communities of color.”
He also addressed the collateral consequences of cannabis convictions, or even arrests, which “can be devastating” and affect a person’s ability to access educational aid, housing opportunities, government assistance and more. Such exclusions have created a “permanent second class status for millions of Americans,” Nadler said.
But Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), ranking member of a Judiciary subcommittee, argued that “even for those who think that it is a good idea to legalize marijuana, the approach reflected in this bill is shortsighted. He added that “supporters of this bill have not adequately considered the effect of this legislation on the American public and especially on our children.”
The amendments considered in the Rules Committee include proposals to make legalization contingent on the completion of certain studies, bar federal funding to states that permit certain cannabis products, main penalties and limit expungement provisions.
One filed amendment, however, would have far-reaching implications by providing relief for people who have been denied a security clearance over marijuana at any point over the past half-century. Another would lower the proposed tax rate on cannabis in the bill.
When the MORE Act reaches the floor, it will mark the second time in history that cannabis legalization legislation has been taken up by a full chamber of Congress. An earlier version of the bill passed the House in 2020, but stalled in the Senate. Then it passed again this session in the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by the bill’s sponsor.
Here’s a rundown of the amendments to the MORE Act that the Rules Committee cleared for floor votes:
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY): Clarify that protections for immigrants cover “possession or use of cannabis that is no longer prohibited pursuant to this Act or an amendment made by this Act.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ): Provide $10 million for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct research on “technologies and methods that law enforcement may use to determine whether a driver is impaired by marijuana.”
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA): Require the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to conduct a study on the “impact of the legalization of recreational cannabis by states on the workplace” and develop “best practices for use by employers that are transitioning their policies related to the use of recreational cannabis, prioritizing the development of best practices for employers engaged in federal infrastructure projects, transportation, public safety and national security.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD): Require federal agencies to review security clearance denials going back to 1971 and retroactively make it so cannabis could not be used “as a reason to deny or rescind a security clearance.”
And here’s a list of amendments that were filed but which were blocked from advancing:
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC): Require the transportation secretary and attorney general to develop and publish “best practices for the recognition and testing of drivers impaired by marijuana” before any provision of the legalization bill could take effect, according to the text.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA): Mandate that the secretary of education conduct a study on “the impact of the legalization of recreational cannabis by states on schools and school-aged children” and develop “best practices for use by educators and administrators to protect school-aged children from any negative impacts of such legalization.”
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA): Maintain enhanced federal penalties for distributing more than five grams of marijuana to a person under the age of 21 and for distributing more than five grams of marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school, college, playground or public housing authority, or within 100 feet of a youth center, public swimming pool or arcade.
Rep. Pete Pete Stauber (R-MN): Make it so immigrants could be deported for driving under the influence of marijuana.
Rep. Tiffany Thomas (R-WI): Create a civil penalty for manufacturing or distributing cannabis products with any “constituent, ingredient or artificial or natural flavor additive (other than marijuana), including a fruit, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, candy, confectionaries, menthol or coffee.”
Rep. Tiffany Thomas (R-WI): Require that marijuana products be sold in packaging that is “designed or constructed to be significantly difficult for children under 5 years of age to open or obtain a toxic or harmful amount of the substance contained therein within a reasonable time and not difficult for normal adults to use properly.” It would also mandate that cannabis products be labeled with a warning that states: “The Surgeon General has determined pregnant women should not use marijuana, which affects the developing fetus, and is associated with adverse outcomes for newborns including lower birth weight, poor cognitive function, hyperactivity and other long-term consequences.”
Rep. Bob Lotta (R-OH): Permanently place fentanyl analogues in Schedule I but also streamline the research process for all drugs in that category—including cannabis and psychedelics—by aligning requirements with those for the less-restricted Schedule II.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD): Make it so none of the provisions of the legalization bill could be enacted until various federal bodies perform studies on the impact of legalization and the directors of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institutes of Health certify that, based on the resulting data, “the societal, public safety and public health benefits of enacting the bill outweigh the societal, public safety and public health risks.” The studies they would need to take into account are as follows. A review by the comptroller general of the “societal impact of the legalization by States of adult use of cannabis.” A review by the secretary of health and human services on the “public health impact of legalization of adult use of cannabis.” A review under the secretary of transportation, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of data on “cannabis-impaired driving.” The amendment lays out several specific areas each review would need to examine.
Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NH): Clarify that certain people would not be eligible to have their past cannabis convictions expunged, including those who were also convicted of violent crimes, sex offenses, possessing a weapon or involvement with fentanyl.
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ): Bar federal funds from being sent to any state in which it is legal to see marijuana or THC “in candy, soda, chocolate, ice cream or other kid-friendly food or beverage.
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ): Bar federal funds from being sent to any state that has legalization marijuana “unless such state offers education campaigns on marijuana impaired driving.”
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ): Delay the legalization bill from taking effect until the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the secretary of health and human services “can identify what delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol concentration level is considered to cause impairment and intoxication in adults.”
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX): Require the secretary of health and human services to break down data on the prevalence of substance use disorders mandated under separate legislation into specific categories for “marijuana use disorder,” “methamphetamine use disorder,” and any other specific substance use disorders as determined by the secretary.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT): Bar certain federal funds from being sent to any state where it is legal to “sell tetrahydrocannabinol in an alcoholic beverage.”
Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN): Delay the legalization bill from taking effect until the attorney general, secretary of health and human services and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “jointly confirm to Congress that a test for standardized field sobriety testing for marijuana is available for use by law enforcement officers for use in investigations of instances of driving while intoxicated or impaired.”
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC): Reduce the proposed federal tax rate for marijuana sales to three percent.
Most of these were Republican-led and viewed as hostile to the bill’s sponsor. They aren’t expected to be made in order.
Of the more notable, reform-friendly amendments, however, was the one filed by Rules Committee member Raskin to create a retroactive review process for those who were denied security clearances over marijuana going back to 1971.
In January, the director of national intelligence (DNI) said that federal employers shouldn’t outright reject security clearance applicants over past use and should use discretion when it comes to those with cannabis investments in their stock portfolios.
Burgess testified in favor of his amendment to on data collection for substance misuse disorders, as well as the Harris amendment on cannabis research requirements, but the panel blocked his motions to clear them for floor action.
Another notable amendment was the tax proposal from Mace, which would lower the rate to align it with the tax provision she included in her own legalization bill.
Pappas, who filed an amendment concerning expungement eligibility, explained his position in a press release before the Rules Committee discussion on the MORE Act began.
It’s unfortunate that the House appears to be rushing to approve the same bill it passed a year ago that has absolutely no chance of becoming law.
We must do better.
— Rep. Chris Pappas (@RepChrisPappas) March 30, 2022
“I support decriminalizing marijuana and passing federal reform so that states can make their own decisions about how to regulate these substances,” he said. “But the MORE Act as it’s written is deeply flawed, and it’s unfortunate that the House appears to be rushing to approve the same bill it passed a year ago that has absolutely no chance of becoming law.”
“The amendment I am submitting would explicitly prevent individuals including violent felons, organized crime leadership, or anyone who has been found guilty of trafficking fentanyl from being let out of prison or having their records expunged,” he said. “We must close these loopholes to ensure that this bill achieves reform and corrects injustices that have disproportionately impacted communities of color and low-income communities.”
The amendment I am submitting would explicitly prevent individuals including violent felons, organized crime leadership, or anyone who has been found guilty of trafficking fentanyl from being let out of prison or having their records expunged.
— Rep. Chris Pappas (@RepChrisPappas) March 30, 2022
There has already been one change to the text of the MORE Act when it was filed for floor action this week, which some advocates are cheering, as it seemingly would give additional leeway to businesses that would be required to get a federal permit to operate a marijuana business.
While the earlier version said a permit could be rejected if a prospective business’s premises “are not adequate to protect the revenue” generated from legalization, the new language says the rejection can be made if officials determine the premises “will not be adequate.
It seems like a minor revision, but the practical effect could be to make it so small businesses would have more flexibility to obtain a permit as they take steps to build out their operations while applications are pending.
Following the announcement that the House would again be voting on the MORE Act, the majority and minority leaders of the Judiciary Committee then released a nearly 500-page report on what the legislation would accomplish and outlining arguments for and against the reform.
What would the MORE Act do as drafted?
Nadler’s MORE Act would deschedule marijuana by removing it from the list of federally banned drugs under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). However, it would not require states to legalize cannabis and would maintain a level of regulatory discretion up to states.
Marijuana products would be subject to a federal excise tax, starting at five percent for the first two years after enactment and rising to eight percent by the fifth year of implementation.
Nobody could be denied federal public benefits based solely on the use or possession of marijuana or past juvenile conviction for a cannabis offense. Federal agencies couldn’t use “past or present cannabis or marijuana use as criteria for granting, denying, or rescinding a security clearance.”
People could not be penalized under federal immigration laws for any cannabis related activity or conviction, whether it occurred before or after the enactment of the legalization legislation.
The bill creates a process for expungements of non-violent federal marijuana convictions.
Tax revenue from cannabis sales would be placed in a new “Opportunity Trust Fund.” Half of those tax dollars would support a “Community Reinvestment Grant Program” under the Justice Department, 10 percent would support substance misuse treatment programs, 40 percent would go to the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) to support implementation and a newly created equitable licensing grant program.
The Community Reinvestment Grant Program would “fund eligible non-profit community organizations to provide a variety of services for individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs…to include job training, reentry services, legal aid for civil and criminal cases (including for expungement of cannabis convictions), among others.”
The program would further support funding for substance misuse treatment for people from communities disproportionately impacted by drug criminalization. Those funds would be available for programs offering services to people with substance misuse disorders for any drug, not just cannabis.
While the bill wouldn’t force states to adopt legalization, it would create incentives to promote equity. For example, SBA would facilitate a program to providing licensing grants to states and localities that have moved to expunge records for people with prior marijuana convictions or “taken steps to eliminate violations or other penalties for persons still under State or local criminal supervision for a cannabis-related offense or violation for conduct now lawful under State or local law.”
The bill’s proposed Cannabis Restorative Opportunity Program would provide funds “for loans to assist small business concerns that are owned and controlled by individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs in eligible States and localities.”
The comptroller general, in consultation with the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), would be required to carry out a study on the demographics of people who have faced federal marijuana convictions, “including information about the age, race, ethnicity, sex, and gender identity.”
The departments of treasury, justice and the SBA would need to “issue or amend any rules, standard operating procedures, and other legal or policy guidance necessary to carry out implementation of the MORE Act” within one year of its enactment.
Marijuana producers and importers would also need to obtain a federal permit. And they would be subject to a $1,000 per year federal tax as well for each premise they operate.
The bill would impose certain packaging and labeling requirements.
It also prescribes penalties for unlawful conduct such as illegal, unlicensed production or importation of cannabis products.
The Treasury secretary would be required to carry out a study “on the characteristics of the cannabis industry, with recommendations to improve the regulation of the industry and related taxes.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) would be required to “regularly compile, maintain, and make public data on the demographics” of marijuana business owners and workers.
Workers in “safety sensitive” positions, such as those regulated by the Department of Transportation, could continue to be drug tested for THC and face penalties for unauthorized use. Federal workers would also continue to be subject to existing drug testing policies.
References to “marijuana” or “marihuana” under federal statute would be changed to “cannabis.” It’s unclear if that would also apply to the title of the bill itself.
The move to hold another vote on the cannabis legalization bill comes weeks after congressional Democrats held a closed-to-press session at a party retreat that included a panel that largely centered on the reform legislation.
Insiders expect the MORE Act to pass on the floor this week, though it will likely clear the chamber in largely partisan fashion. A spokesperson for Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), the sole GOP cosponsor of the bill, told Marijuana Moment that he would vote in favor of the legislation again. He was one of five Republican members to vote “yes” on the MORE Act last session.
However, a pro-legalization GOP congressman who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Dave Joyce (R), is set to vote against it. His office circulated a letter to other Republican offices ahead of the Rules Committee meeting offering resources on navigating cannabis policy issues but expressing opposition to the MORE Act as drafted.
Joyce separately sent a letter to Nadler last month, expressing his willingness to work with the bill sponsor on revisions to build bipartisan support.
Meanwhile, advocates and stakeholders are eagerly awaiting the formal introduction of a separate Senate legalization bill that’s being finalized by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and colleagues. Schumer recently said the plan is to file that bill—the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act (CAOA)—in April.
Also in Congress, a separate bill to tax and regulate marijuana is also in play this session. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) is sponsoring that legislation, and she said in a recent interview that she’s received assurances from Democratic leaders that her States Reform Act will receive a hearing following the MORE Act floor vote.
Meanwhile, on the same day that it was announced that the MORE Act would be heading to the floor again, the Senate unanimously approved a bipartisan bill meant to promote research into marijuana, in part by streamlining the application process for researchers who want to study the plant and to encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop cannabis-derived medicines.
Congressional researchers separately released a report recently that details the challenges posed by ongoing federal prohibition and the options that lawmakers have available to address them.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.