After a series of delays, the House of Representatives finally voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act today. If passed, the bill would deschedule cannabis and decriminalize it at the federal level. But that doesn’t mean weed would immediately become legal across the U.S.—the bill would leave it to the states to decide how they want to regulate the substance. The bill also includes some provisions for expunging records and previous cannabis-related convictions, as well as measures to ensure that those most harmed by the war on drugs have the chance to participate in a legal cannabis market.
The current version of the bill isn’t perfect, and it still needs to pass through the Senate (it isn’t expected to come up for a vote in this congressional session or the next, Politico explains). But activists are celebrating this victory as a historic moment for federal cannabis legislation—and a sign of just how much political and public opinion has changed on cannabis.
“This is an historic day for marijuana policy in the United States,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, said in a statement. “This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance, and it marks the first time in 24 years—when California became the first state defy the federal government on the issue of marijuana prohibition—that Congress has sought to close the widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies.”
“We’re here because we have failed three generations of Black and Brown young people, whose lives can be ruined, or lost, by selective enforcement of these laws,” U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer said on the House floor. “This legislation will end that disaster. It’s time for Congress to step up and do its part. We need to catch up with the rest of the American people.”
However, during the amendment process that took place over the past week as the bill was being finalized, some of the language in the bill was changed. The first changes were seen on Monday around the tax provision in the bill. The way the provision is written now could allow for some people with previous cannabis convictions to be denied federal permits to participate in the legal cannabis industry, Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, tells SELF. More changes came from Democratic representatives in the rules committee meeting on Wednesday, she explains. These changes specify that only people with “nonviolent” past cannabis convictions would be eligible for expungement and resentencing and they specifically exclude high-level traffickers, a decision that DPA strictly opposes.
But, ultimately, the bill was approved in the House. And although Perez says it’s understandable that representatives felt like they had to add those amendments to secure votes, “it’s not good policy and not a policy decision that we agree with whatsoever.”
“The criminalization of marijuana is a cornerstone of the racist war on drugs,” Perez said in a statement. “Today the House took the most powerful step forward to address that shameful legacy. But the MORE Act as passed is imperfect, and we will continue to demand more until our communities have the world they deserve.”
To learn more about the MORE Act and what it could accomplish, continue to our original story below.
In a historic move, the House of Representatives is set to vote this month on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, Politico reports. The bill would deschedule cannabis (marijuana), and therefore decriminalize it at the federal level. Unfortunately, the bill doesn’t have the best chances of making it through Congress due to Republican opposition in the Senate. But the fact that it has made it this far—and that it will actually be voted on—is a big deal.
Thanks to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, drugs in the U.S. are classified by “schedules” based on their potential for abuse, how much we know about their effects, and any medical value they have, the Drug Enforcement Agency explains. Currently cannabis is in Schedule I, the most restrictive classification, meaning that the government believes it has a high potential for abuse and no medical value.
The original decision to put cannabis in Schedule I was steeped in racism and xenophobia far more than scientific evidence. And, based on what we’ve learned about cannabis and its potential medical uses in the past several decades, we know that’s not necessarily an accurate assessment of the evidence. But the current scheduling still causes harm, especially for Black and brown people, and restricts the amount of research we can do with cannabis. So advocates have been working toward descheduling cannabis—which would put it in a less restrictive schedule or remove it from scheduling entirely—for a long time now.
The MORE Act, which was sponsored in the Senate by vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, would remove cannabis from scheduling and, well, more. The bill would also take some measures to address the harms that cannabis prohibition has caused. It would expunge and seal previous nonviolent federal cannabis-related arrests and convictions for those who are not currently serving their sentences. Those who are currently serving sentences for federal cannabis arrests or convictions would have the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed and, possibly, have their records expunged and sentences vacated.
It would also create a community reinvestment grant program that would fund job training, health education, youth mentoring programs, and legal aid “for individuals most adversely impacted” by the war on drugs. Additionally, the bill would establish a cannabis justice office to ensure the implementation of those programs.
Descheduling cannabis at the federal level would effectively decriminalize it across the country, but individual states would still have the power to legalize it (or not) on their own. Passing this bill would not mean that weed would suddenly become legal everywhere, but it does mean that those states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational (adult) use don’t have to worry about the federal government interfering with their legal cannabis practices.
“Passage of the MORE Act is essential in order to truly right the wrongs of federal marijuana criminalization, and to once and for all allow the majority of states that have legalized cannabis for either medical or adult-use to embrace these policies free from the threat of undue federal prosecution or interference,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said in a statement.
Although the MORE Act may never become law, it shows just how much public and political opinion has changed on the subject of cannabis legalization—and marks an important step forward in addressing the past and ongoing harms of the war on drugs, which continue to disproportionately affect communities of color.
“We believe that the responsible regulation and control of marijuana will be more beneficial to society and the public’s health than prohibiting and criminalizing it,” reads an open letter organized by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and signed by 16 organizations and more than 100 individuals, including epidemiologists and public health experts.
“What makes the MORE Act absolutely essential is that it will help communities avoid the very real harms they face daily due to the criminalization and enforcement of our marijuana laws—particularly Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities,” Danielle Ompad, Ph.D., associate dean for education and associate professor of epidemiology at the NYU School of Global Public Health, who also signed the DPA letter, said in a statement. “Federal prohibition is an utter failure, and has only served to worsen public and community health. We have waited far too long and it is essential that Congress act now.”