House Passes Bill To Legalize Marijuana at the Federal Level

Deanna Lucci

Seth Goldberg
Seth A. Goldberg

Today, the House of Representatives passed the groundbreaking MORE Act – legalizing marijuana at the federal level.  The bill passed by a vote of 228 to 164. 

As we previously discussed in our November 10th and September 4th blog posts, the MORE Act (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 – H.R. 3884) legalizes marijuana and cannabis at the federal level, by removing them from the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates some cannabis criminal records.

While the bill represents a first step toward legalizing cannabis, states would need to adopt similar measures to fully decriminalize its use – currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized (or recently voted to legalize) cannabis for adult recreational use, and 35 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis.

The bill also makes other changes, including:

  • Replaces statutory references to marijuana and marihuana with cannabis,
  • Requires the Bureau of Labor Statistics to regularly publish demographic data on cannabis business owners and employees,
  • Establishes a trust fund to support various programs and services for individuals and businesses in communities impacted by the war on drugs,
  • Imposes a 5% tax on cannabis products and requires revenues to be deposited into the trust fund,
  • Makes Small Business Administration loans and services available to entities that are cannabis-related legitimate businesses or service providers,
  • Prohibits the denial of federal public benefits to a person on the basis of certain cannabis-related conduct or convictions,
  • Prohibits the denial of benefits and protections under immigration laws on the basis of a cannabis-related event (e.g., conduct or a conviction), and
  • Establishes a process to expunge convictions and conduct sentencing review hearings related to federal cannabis offenses.

While Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), the Vice President-Elect, introduced a counterpart bill (S.2227) in the U.S. Senate, its passage in the chamber is unlikely this Congress as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has declined to endorse the bill.

While this legislation is unlikely to pass the Senate this Congress, proponents of cannabis legalization have hailed the House vote as historic, and an important first step toward generating the momentum and support needed to favorably position the measure for future congressional consideration.  And whether the measure would be approved by the next Congress likely depends on the outcome of the two Georgia Senate runoff elections scheduled for January 5, 2021.  If both Democratic Senate candidates, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, win the runoffs, then the Democrats will control both the House and Senate, with Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.

However, it is unclear if President-Elect Joe Biden would sign the bill since he has proposed rescheduling cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts as opposed to removing it entirely from the list of scheduled substances.  While Biden has expressed support for decriminalization of marijuana, expungement of prior cannabis use convictions, and legalizing cannabis use for medical purposes – he has said he wants to leave decisions regarding adult recreational use to the individual states.  Nonetheless, marijuana legalization advocates believe this symbolic vote on the legislation could send a strong signal to the Biden administration that this is a Democratic priority.

Even though federal legalization may not be on the immediate horizon, the passage of the MORE Act in the House, and the legalization of adult-use and/or medical marijuana in five more states on November 3, 2020, could influence a Biden-appointed attorney general’s views on enforcement of marijuana related activities. While AG Sessions attempted to reverse the liberal Obama administration marijuana policies set forth in the Cole Memorandum, and AG Barr has reluctantly acknowledged that the Cole priorities have been relied on and should thus be followed, an AG appointed by Biden, given the current pro-legalization wave, Biden’s favoring of state’s rights on this issue, and Kamala Harris’s favoring of decriminalization, might endorse an approach consistent with, if not even more liberal than, the Cole priorities.   Thus, while the appointment of AG Sessions sent shockwaves through the cannabis industry, market participants and those who have been standing on the sidelines eager to get on the field seem to have a lot to look forward to.