Legislation to decriminalize marijuana under federal law has gotten some traction in Congress, with a U.S. House committee passing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement, or MORE, Act in November. But the bill, introduced by New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, is not expected to become law.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House judiciary committee passed the MORE Act in November, with the support of two Republicans. Under the proposal, people with past marijuana-related convictions could remove those offenses from their records, and a 5 percent sales tax on cannabis products would fund investments in communities hardest hit by the War on Drugs.
“It’s a relatively bold measure at the federal level,” said Vanderbilt law professor Robert Mikos, who studies federalism and drug law. Mikos noted, though, that public opinion has swayed heavily in favor of making marijuana legal.
“Support for legalization is really at an all-time high,” Mikos said. “A super-majority of Americans favor outright legalization … for recreational or adult use.”
Two-thirds of Americans think marijuana should be legal, according to a Pew Research Center poll from November.
Most Democratic candidates for president also support legalization of cannabis at the federal level. But former vice president Joe Biden would not go that far: He would instead switch marijuana from being a schedule I drug – for which prescriptions may never be written – to a schedule II drug. Schedule II drugs include opioids, which are considered to have medical value but a high potential for abuse.
Mikos noted that marijuana policy tends not to top voters’ lists of priorities. He suggested, however, that the issue might matter in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado, where the drug is legal either for medical or recreational use.
The cannabis industries that have developed in such states stand to benefit from passage of the MORE Act, Mikos said. For example, the bill could reduce barriers to banking and the tax liabilities that marijuana businesses face, as well as roll back restrictions on medical marijuana research.
But with limited Republican support for loosening federal rules, Mikos said, the MORE Act’s proposal to decriminalize cannabis likely is meant to establish priorities for future legislation.
“If you read the statute, it’s not a real comprehensive statute to deal with this drug,” he said. “I think it’s really intended more to get people talking about some of the issues that it emphasizes, like social justice, like undoing some of the harms of the War on Drugs.”
“More modest proposals for reform … stand a better chance of passing,” Mikos said. The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act in the Senate, for example, “would just turn off the federal ban in states that legalize [marijuana].”
Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren introduced the legislation with Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, in April. The Senate judiciary committee has taken no action on the bill.
While President Donald Trump has not discussed marijuana policy much, Mikos said he might be inclined to support the STATES Act.
Find more stories in our series, The State of Cannabis.