Federal cannabis reform is on the congressional horizon again, and this time, there’s actually some traction.
On Dec. 4, the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2020 (MORE Act) with a vote of 228-164. Still, only five of the affirmative votes were Republican. And the bill will most likely be dead on arrival in the conservative-controlled Senate. That’s a shame.
Republican senators have the opportunity to shift the narrative on cannabis by sticking up for principles of freedom, responsibility, reinvigorated communities and states rights by voting for the MORE Act. They can set a different, better precedent for their party.
The GOP has had a long and contentious past with cannabis legality, but times are changing, and even conservative states like Montana and South Dakota are legalizing recreational cannabis. The federal government shouldn’t get in the way.
Yet Republican senators, unsurprisingly, are expected to kill the MORE Act despite the nation’s growing support for cannabis legality. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll conducted in October of this year, 68 percent of Americans support legalizing cannabis — meaning they won’t much like the Senate’s vote. And this begs the question: What does that percentage of American supporters have to be before Congress starts to vote for the will and the well-being of the people they’re supposed to represent?
Not every Republican senator is missing the boat here — there are a few Republican senators who support criminal justice reform. Folks like Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Thomas Massie have acknowledged the long history of harm that federal marijuana scheduling and prohibition have caused. Between now and the next time this issue shows up, these men should try to rally support so a similar bill has a chance of passing with Republican backing in the future.
While Congress plays their partisan games, calculating who and what to vote for based on party lines and reelection efforts, the nation’s communities, families and individuals will be suffering because of big government prohibition. Cannabis legalization has caused enough harm and despair in our country, destroying lives of individuals, and tearing families apart, leaving kids to grow up with incarcerated parents over a drug that’s now fully legal in 15 states.
Federal cannabis prohibition is rooted in racism, and current cannabis policing practices still perpetuate the racist history. For example, African-Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than White people, who consume the drug at about the same rate.
Cannabis is currently listed as a Schedule I narcotic — that means, according to D.C. bureaucrats, it’s defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” It’s scheduled right alongside heroin, and categorized as even more dangerous than meth and fentanyl, which should give you a nice picture of the rationalism and scientific nature of this list. The MORE Act would remove cannabis from the list completely, which would open the door for states to legalize without the fear of Big Brother crackdown, and allow more medical studies for cannabis as medicine.
The MORE Act would also eliminate criminal penalties for possessing, manufacturing and distributing cannabis. And for those who have already sustained federal cannabis convictions, the legislation would establish a way for individuals to have a better mechanism to clear their record by obtaining an expungement so they will have less obstacles on their pathway toward success. It would also legitimize cannabis businesses by allowing them to be eligible for Small Business Administration loans, which is so important in a time of COVID-19.
The part of the bill that many people aren’t thrilled about is a 5% tax on cannabis which would be put in a trust fund established to support services for those impacted by the war on drugs. This sounds nice in theory, but in reality it’s an area probably best left up to states that know the needs of their communities best. A federal tax is certainly not ideal for legalization, especially considering that state and local governments will likely want their share of the tax dollars that legal cannabis markets bring. And if taxes get too high, buyers will simply resort to black markets. This is already happening in states like California, whose cannabis prices are astronomical because of high taxes.
Legislation realistically probably isn’t happening with the MORE Act. But bills like this have a chance of passing in the future if key Republican senators, who support meaningful criminal justice reform, speak up in support of the bill today. In terms of helping the most amount of people in the criminal system from the federal level, and helping reverse even a bit of the harm the drug war has caused, federal cannabis decriminalization is the path forward.
• Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute and an opportunity fellow at Young Voices in Washington, D.C.