Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act is poised to end up on the House floor next week
Rumors of a floor vote, coming from a congressional staffer and a key advocate familiar with the high-level discussions are being fueled by a closed-to-press session held weeks ago by congressional Democrats at a party retreat.
The Marijuana Justice Coalition (MJC), a broad coalition of national advocacy organizations convened by the Drug Policy Alliance, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) earlier this month, calling for a floor vote on the bill.
Congressional Democrats Elevate Marijuana Equity Issues At Retreat Panel Focused On Legalization
Democratic congressional lawmakers convened for a policy retreat in Philadelphia on Thursday that featured a panel on advancing marijuana reform with a focus on promoting equity.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) moderated the cannabis panel, which largely centered on the need to ensure that those most impacted by prohibition can benefit from federal legalization. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was specifically discussed as advocates push for a floor vote on the proposal this month.
A Democratic congressional staffer familiar with the panel told that “the congresswoman’s feeling is still that racial justice and restorative justice needs to be at the centerpiece of any cannabis legislation that we put forward,” referring to Lee.
Notably, the event took place the day after the Democratic-controlled House approved a large-scale spending bill that continues a long-standing appropriations rider blocking Washington, D.C. from allowing cannabis commerce despite local voters’ approval of legalization at the ballot in 2014.
Despite that legislative setback for reform, sources emphasized that the panel discussion at the retreat focused on ensuring that equity is a focal point of any broader legalization legislation that advances on Capitol Hill.
Supernova Women Executive Director Amber Senter, who is a constituent of Lee’s and participated on the panel, told Marijuana Moment that there was extensive discussion about equity programs and clearing up misconceptions about who would qualify for equity benefits under proposed legalization legislation.
“I’m an operator and owner of a cannabis business in Oakland. And I wanted the lawmakers to understand the difference between social equity and black business,” she said, “because a lot of the lawmakers believe that they’re all the same—that if you’re a black person, you qualify for social equity, and that’s simply not true.”
“They were shocked. They were very intrigued, very engaged and want to follow up to learn how to protect black business,” Senter said.
Attendees seemed “very willing and open to learning more information about what’s happening from the operators’ perspective,” she said. “That was very encouraging. Lots of times in these types of settings, it’s policymakers that are speaking to the legislators, and they rarely get to hear from the operators on the ground who are affected by all these policies.”
Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) Executive Director Amber Littlejohn, who also participated in the session, told Marijuana Moment that “it is encouraging to see House Democrats continue to consider this issue—important enough to dedicate this type of time and thought to it” at the retreat.
“It’s particularly encouraging that the panelists that there were folks that are really centered on equity and ensuring that, as we legalize, it will be rooted in equity,” she said.
That point was echoed by Maritza Perez, another were panelist who serves as director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. She told Marijuana Moment that the MORE Act “continues to be the most far-reaching bill that addresses social equity in marijuana in Congress.”
Also speaking on the panel was the Brookings Institution’s John Hudak.
This isn’t the first time that congressional Democrats have put marijuana reform on the agenda for similar closed-door retreats. In 2019, Lee and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)—who are both co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus—also moderated a panel raising the issue to colleagues.
The agenda for that event touched on everything from the consequences of cannabis criminalization to frameworks that states have established as they’ve moved to enact legalization.
While it remains to be seen whether House leadership will put the MORE Act back on the floor this month, as advocates are pushing for, the bill did clear the Judiciary Committee in September. It passed the full chamber last session in a historic vote in 2020.
Ahead of Thursday’s Democratic caucus retreat, a GOP congressman, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), made a dismissive comment about the opposite party’s legislative priorities.
As questions were being raised about the timeline for the Democratic retreat amid negotiations over omnibus legislation, he made a sarcastic comment on Twitter: “Oh no! Will this delay the drag show or the discussion on racial equity in the cannabis industry?”
The MORE Act repeals the long-standing federal prohibition of marijuana by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act — thereby ending the state/federal conflict over cannabis policies and providing state governments with greater authority to regulate marijuana-related activities, including retail sales.
“This legislation would end federal marijuana prohibition, address the collateral consequences of federal marijuana criminalization, and take steps to ensure the legal marketplace is diverse and inclusive,” the letter states.
“Mass criminalization and over-enforcement of drug law violations have devastated the social and economic fabrics of entire communities (…) And while Black, Latino, and Indigenous people have carried the brunt of marijuana criminalization, they have been shut out of the regulated marijuana marketplace due to these very same criminal records in addition to financial barriers to entry.” The Coalition praised the MORE Act for its “comprehensive approach,” as the bill would declassify marijuana as a controlled substance under federal law, expunge marijuana convictions, and reduce marijuana sentences.
“The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the MORE Act would have reduced time served by 73,000 person-years, over the 2021-2030 period, among existing and future incarcerated individuals. The bill, after solving the industry’s 280E tax issue, would also place a minor initial five percent federal excise tax on marijuana sales at the manufacturer level in order to fund services in communities adversely impacted by drug prohibition and to build up Small Business Administration programming to support a more diverse and inclusive marketplace with local ownership,” explained the letter.
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