A vote to decriminalise cannabis at the federal level swept through the lower chamber of the United States Congress on Friday, December 4th, passing with a majority of 228 to 164. For now, though, it’s unlikely that the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (More) Act will become law, as the Republican-controlled Senate is not expected to pass the bill. In spite of this, however, the victory in the House of Representatives is seen by many as a massive statement of political intent, and reinforces the notion that cannabis reform is now a closer than ever.
Cannabis Decriminalisation Finally Reaches Congress
The MORE Act ballot in the House of Representatives was a historic moment in the campaign to decriminalise cannabis, with Congress having never previously voted on a standalone marijuana bill. According to the official wording of the act, this long-overdue piece of legislation seeks to “remove marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminate criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses marijuana.”
Yet the bill goes much further than this, and aims to start righting the wrongs caused by the decades-long War on Drugs. For instance, it would tax cannabis sales and use the money to fund training programmes and other investments in order to create more opportunities for communities of colour, which have historically been the most severely affected by discriminatory cannabis policies.
The act would also ensure that immigrants can no longer be deported or denied citizenship because of cannabis possession, and prevent government agencies from withholding benefits to people with prior cannabis convictions. Importantly, it would also seek to expunge these previous charges and convictions, allowing for anyone currently serving time for cannabis offenses to be resentenced.
Of the bill’s 120 co-sponsors, all but one were Democrats, with Florida’s Republican representative Matt Gaetz the only member of his party to put his name on the cannabis decriminalisation bill. Taking to the floor, he explained that he decided to endorse the legislation “because the federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana for a generation.”
“We have seen a generation, particularly of black and brown youth, locked up for offenses that should have not resulted in any incarceration whatsoever,” he continued.
As the speeches continued, Gaetz’s sentiment was backed up by numerous Democrats, including Representative Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who said that “wars are costly, and the war on marijuana is no exception… The costs of the war on marijuana have disproportionately fell on the backs of blacks and Latinos.”
Unsurprisingly, voting more or less followed party lines, with most of the ‘yeas’ coming from Democrats while Republicans supplied the majority of the ‘nays’. Five members of the GOP did break rank, however, voting in favour of the motion to decriminalise cannabis.
When Will The US Decriminalise Cannabis?
Should the MORE Act become law, it would allow the federal government to finally align its cannabis policy with those of the numerous states that have relaxed their stance in recent years. At present, recreational cannabis is legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia, while medical marijuana is available in 38 states. However, prohibition at the federal level makes it difficult for cannabis businesses to secure bank loans or partake in other financial services.
Unfortunately, though, this isn’t about to change, as any bill that doesn’t get passed by the Senate before Congress is adjourned on January 3rd will have to be reintroduced in a future session. Because the Senate is currently controlled by a Republican majority, there’s pretty much no chance that the MORE Act will make it through the Senate at the present time.
It’s important to note, however, that a defeat for the bill in the Senate would not indicate a lack of appetite for cannabis reform in the US, but would instead merely reflect the highly polarised nature of American politics. After all, the MORE Act is the Democrats’ baby, and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell is never going to let that fly.
And yet, there is hope. Next month sees a special election run-off take place in Georgia in order to decide the occupants of the state’s two Senate seats, after no candidate secured a majority in November’s election. The outcome of this poll could have massive repercussions for the upper chamber, and could be key in determining the success of any cannabis legislation that gets introduced over the next few years.
At present, the Republicans are set to hold 50 of the Senate’s seats when the new Congress starts in January, while the Democrats have 48. If the Democrats secure both of Georgia’s seats, however, then there will be a 50-50 split, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the deciding vote whenever a deadlock occurs. Given that Harris is the lead sponsor of the Senate companion version of the MORE Act, it seems that there may well be a path for this bill through the upper chamber, depending on the outcome of the upcoming special election in Georgia.
For now, then, it seems that machinations in Washington are likely to put the MORE Act on ice, but the surging support for cannabis reform in the US is now seriously testing the Republican Party’s ability to resist the will of the people.