Congress takes a historic first step on national cannabis legalization

Published on November 19, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
house vote, cannabis, cbd, marijuana legalization
Ben Adlin scours the nation's statehouses for the bills that may change the way you enjoy cannabis. (uschools, Amanda Goehlert/iStock)

In a milestone moment for drug policy reform in America, on Wednesday morning the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider a landmark bill to end cannabis prohibition nationwide.

The MORE Act (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act), introduced in Congress in late July, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely. The MORE Act would also reassess federal marijuana convictions and invest in local communities using a 5% federal cannabis tax. The Judiciary Committee markup session is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Eastern time.

This week’s move is a big deal in the cannabis world, for a number of reasons.

The MORE Act Calls for Sweeping Changes in Federal Cannabis Law


Tomorrow’s hearing represents the first time a cannabis legalization bill has advanced this far federally.

By bringing the MORE Act up for markup, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chair of the Judiciary Committee, sends a clear signal that the new House Democratic leadership will be championing the MORE Act over its rival, the STATES Act.

Cannabis advocates on Capitol Hill have described the STATES Act as a legalization starter set.

The STATES Act, which has been embraced by more middle-of-the-road politicians, would allow states that have legalized cannabis to continue regulating it without federal interference. But STATES would leave intact all of the hundreds of complications that come with the listing of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance.

In conversations with Leafly over the past few months, a number of cannabis advocates who work regularly on Capitol Hill have described the STATES Act as a legalization starter set—something that allows timid politicians to try out the issue. Those who are serious about legalization and social justice, though, consider STATES to be weak tea. The MORE Act is the robust measure they seek in order to eliminate cannabis prohibition and most of its attendant harms.

“It’s groundbreaking legislation,” said Queen Adesuyi, national affairs policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. The MORE Act, she added, “goes further than any other federal marijuana bill in history by helping repair the destruction from prohibition and ensuring reparative justice and equity in legalization.”

The STATES Act Is Back. Can It Win Over Congress?

Rep. Barbara Lee comes to the fore

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus on Capitol Hill, has emerged as the most visible advocate for the MORE Act and its social justice measures. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The bill was originally sponsored by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Nadler, but in the intervening months, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) has become the measure’s most visible advocate. Harris is busy running for president, and Nadler represents a state still clinging to prohibition.

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Lee, by contrast, represents a district centered around the city of Oakland, a stronghold of cannabis history and culture. Oakland pioneered both medical marijuana dispensaries and the creation of social equity cannabis licenses.

Lee’s constituents are also among the people most harmed by the war on drugs and cannabis prohibition—and she’s fighting to make sure any nationwide legalization bill includes measures to repair those harms.

“As states continue to modernize how we regulate cannabis, Congress has a responsibility to ensure that our policies are fair, equitable, and inclusive,” said Rep. Lee. “I’m pleased that this critical bill includes key tenets from my own legislation to right the wrongs of the failed and racist war on drugs by expunging criminal convictions, reinvesting in communities of color through restorative justice, and promoting equitable participation in the legal marijuana industry.”

‘Better Than Ever’ Cannabis Coalition Hits the Ground Running

The MORE Act spelled out

The MORE Act would:

  • Decriminalize cannabis at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act.
  • Require federal courts to retroactively expunge prior and pending convictions, allow prior offenders to request expungement, and require courts, on motion, to conduct re-sentencing hearings for those still under supervision. It would also enable states to set their own policies.
  • Authorize the assessment of a 5% sales tax on cannabis and cannabis products to create an Opportunity Trust Fund, which includes three grant programs:
    • The Community Reinvestment Grant Program: Would provide services to individuals most adversely impacted by the war on drugs, including job training, re-entry services, legal aid, literacy programs, youth recreation, mentoring, and substance-use treatment.
    • The Cannabis Opportunity Grant Program: Would provide funds for loans to assist small businesses in the marijuana industry that are owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
    • The Equitable Licensing Grant Program: Would provide funds for programs that minimize barriers to marijuana licensing and employment for individuals most adversely impacted by the war on drugs.
  • Open up small business administration funding for legitimate cannabis-related businesses and service providers.
  • Provide non-discrimination protection for marijuana use or possession, and for prior convictions for a marijuana offense, by:
    • Prohibiting the denial of any federal public benefit (including housing) based on the use or possession of marijuana, or prior conviction for a marijuana offense.
    • Stipulating that the use or possession of marijuana, or prior conviction for a marijuana offense, will have no adverse impact under immigration laws.
  • Require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to collect data on the demographics of the industry to ensure people of color and those who are economically disadvantaged are participating in the industry.

What next?

If the MORE Act passes through the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, its next step would be to come before the full House for debate and vote. The measure would still have to pass the Senate in order to become law. And that might be a tougher slog.

Conventional wisdom has the STATES Act as the more popular measure in the Senate, as the upper chamber is generally considered far more conservative on cannabis issues.

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Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott
Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.
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