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  • Hannah Martin

The Prospect of Marijuana Decriminalization

Photo Credit: CNN

Photo Credit: CNN

The federal legalization and decriminalization of medical and recreational marijuana have been prominent political topics since the 1990s. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. By 1998 Alaska, Oregon and Washington joined California and made medical marijuana legal. Since 2012, recreational marijuana usage has gained increasing traction. On April 1, 2022, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE), which would effectively decriminalize marijuana on the federal level, was passed for the second time in the U.S. House of Representatives. The passing of the MORE Act in the House has the potential to serve as a significant milestone in the journey of federal cannabis legislation.

The MORE Act would not legalize marijuana; instead, it would decriminalize it. While legalizing marijuana would make the drug legal for use across the United States, decriminalization would erase any criminal penalties for marijuana involvement. However, the substance itself would still be considered federally illegal. Therefore, penalties for marijuana charges would no longer be as severe as they were prior to decriminalization, while still allowing states to choose if they would like to legalize. In a decriminalized model, penalties would be civil rather than criminal, and marijuana use and possession would no longer result in a criminal record. Instead, prevention efforts would primarily focus on assisting those with substance abuse issues. This small yet significant difference in terminologies explains why the MORE Act has the potential to affect the justice system of the United States greatly.

The current 117th Congress has introduced multiple bills centered around decriminalizing and processing illegal marijuana activities. For example, the “Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act,” “Marijuana Data Collection Act” and the “Medical Marijuana Research Act” have all been introduced to the House. Only the Medical Marijuana Research Act and the MORE Act have passed an official vote as of now. The Medical Marijuana Research Act would establish a separate registration process to facilitate medical marijuana research. Therefore, the longevity of the MORE Act and actions taken on the proposed bill largely predict the future of marijuana legality in America.

The MORE Act “removes marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses marijuana.” In the U.S., the Drug Enforcement Administration gives drugs different levels, known as schedules, where schedule one is the strictest. Marijuana currently falls under the schedule one regulation, alongside heroin. Comparatively, considerably more addictive and harmful drugs, such as cocaine and ketamine, fall under less strict schedules. This regulation system is not a ranking of how dangerous or harmful the government views each respective drug; instead, schedules act as guides for medical possibilities and potential for user abuse. Schedule one consists of drugs with limited medical value and a high potential for abuse. The lowest schedule, schedule five, consists of drugs with high medical value and limited potential for abuse. This aspect of the MORE Act would permit more research on marijuana and restrictions on the drug to loosen. Other changes would also result from this bill, such as an emphasis on increased data collection on cannabis businesses and an Opportunity Trust Fund introduction. The Opportunity Trust Fund finances would be collected from a 5% tax on recreational purchases, eventually rising to an 8% tax. The Opportunity Trust Fund finances would support substance abuse treatment programs, support the creation of an “equitable licensing grant program,” and assist a “Community Reinvestment Program.” This tax intends to help fight the War on Drugs and fund necessary government assistance due to drug use.

The debate on cannabis legalization has persisted for a long time, but the issue is often considered partisan. However, some politicians strayed from party lines. Congressman Chris Pappas (D-NH) voted against the MORE bill because “It is a deeply flawed bill that contains loopholes that would jeopardize public safety.” Republicans who voted against the MORE Act have stated similar feelings towards the prospect of the bill; there is more concern with minor details that may have overlooked impacts. Dave Joyce (R-OH), Co-Chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, is skeptical about the MORE Act, particularly due to its lack of “meaningful and immediate regulatory safeguards at all.” In an op-ed, Joyce explains that a focus on minimizing federal punishment for marijuana disregards the more prominent state and local criminal justice issues. Joyce further explains that specific needs for states are not considered in a federal bill such as the MORE Act, resulting in an ineffective measure. Joining Pappas in voting against the MORE Act was Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX). Three Republicans, Congressmen Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Brian Mast (R-FL), and Tom McClintock (R-CA), voted in favor of the bill.

Pappas is one of the multiple politicians who have or plan on proposing an alternative marijuana legalization bill. The Majority Leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer (D-NY), has also come forward about introducing an additional marijuana bill. The main obstacle to legalizing marijuana in Congress seems to be collective agreement on a particular bill and gaining enough votes for one. A division between the two major parties of the U.S. could result in extensive inaction in the progression of this policy.

The MORE Act passed by a 220-204 vote, which was predominantly a partisan result. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stated that passing the MORE Act “helps end the devastating injustices of the criminalization of marijuana that have disproportionately impacted low-income communities and communities of color.” The ACLU reports that marijuana charges account for approximately half of all drug arrests. Since such a large percentage of drug crime centers around this one drug, drug crime would likely go down with the MORE Act. Additionally, due to a disproportionate share of marijuana charges targeting people of color, there may be less racial prejudice if marijuana use, sale, and possession became federally decriminalized. Nationally, as of 2021, most Democratic and Independent voters support legalizing cannabis, and the Republican voters are divided. Regardless of how opinions vary by party, the majority of Americans are in support of the legalization of cannabis.

Previously, in 2020, the MORE bill passed in the House but failed to push forth in the U.S. Senate. For the bill to pass in the 117th Senate in 2022, there needs to be unanimous support from the Democrats and Independents, as well as support from at least ten Republicans, which would add up to sixty Senators supporting the MORE Act. This is because three-fifths of Senators need to support the MORE Act to prevent the filibuster–a prolonged debate utilized to avoid voting on a bill. This three-fifths voting rule is known as cloture, and if it is unattained, the MORE Act could be debated indefinitely, resulting in a lack of effective action. Will the MORE Act effectively improve current drug injustices? Currently, without approval from the Senate, the MORE Act is far from enactment and, therefore, far from providing any impact on the criminal justice system. Disagreements between and within parties display the wavering position cannabis legalization holds in Congress. The MORE Act will likely die in Congress again because of hesitancy from both parties. However, even if the MORE bill is futile in the Senate for the second time, it is unlikely the push for marijuana legalization will stray far from the limelight.

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