In an unprecedented vote that may permanently change medical and recreational drug use, the United States House of Representatives passed legislation for marijuana decriminalization. Such a statute would have been groundbreaking in and of itself, yet the news does not stop there.
The House marijuana decriminalization bill also proposed to expunge non-violent convictions related to the substance under the Act’s official title, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019.
This long-awaited yet positively astonishing Congressional decision was determined by a 228-164 vote. Unfortunately, many have little hope for the bill as it makes its way to the Republican-led Senate. Still, even if the Senate does refuse to pass the new legislation, the House decision (along with the state cannabis legalizations that emerged nationwide in the 2020 election) signifies a critical historical turning point for the U.S.
The Political History of Cannabis In the United States
Cannabis-derived products have been regulated heavily by the federal government for as long as most advocates, consumers, and industry professionals can recall. Yet, the political climate was not always so hostile. In 1840, cannabis was considered a staple crop for the U.S colonies and was used medicinally by a large majority of the population.
In fact, cannabis plants were so crucial to both Americans’ health and the economy that Virginia legally required all farms within the colony to grow hemp in 1619. Maryland and Pennsylvania were similarly passionate about the herb.
At the time, no qualms were dividing the country’s leaders or civilians about either medicinal or recreational cannabis use. This lasted until about 1890-1900, when medical professionals began to raise concerns about plants’ and derivatives’ safety.
Unfortunately, this opposition was not purely driven by medical expertise but prejudice toward our neighbors south of the border. Around the same time that calls began to regulate and criminalize cannabis use, state and federal officials started referring to the herb using the following language:
- “Loco-weed,” the “Mexican form” of the cannabis plant, also known as “marijuana”
- A “dangerous, habit-forming drug” that “Mexican laborers” brought into the country
Accusations claiming that Mexican people had “planted” doses of marijuana in working-class Americans’ and schoolchildren’s property began to spread like wildfire as well.
Sadly, whether they associated themselves with this marginalizing language or not, the legal authorities and medical professionals achieved their goal, and cannabis use was declared a criminal behavior in 1914 by the Harrison Act.
By 1937, marijuana possession had been criminalized in 23 states, and the Marijuana Tax Act was introduced. The federal government finally categorized cannabis as a Schedule I substance in the 1970 Federal Narcotics Control Act, and efforts to reverse the decision have persisted ever since.
Details of the Bill
Decades of impassioned efforts by both political leaders and citizen-led organizations have culminated in this historic House vote that passed marijuana decriminalization and expungement of convictions related to the herb in a 228-164 decision.
The summarized intent of the marijuana decriminalization bill reads as follows:
“To decriminalize and deschedule cannabis, to provide for reinvestment in certain persons adversely impacted by the War on Drugs, to provide for expungement of certain cannabis offenses, and for other purposes.”
Although millions have been hoping for this change over the last several years, many are blindsided by this legal victory. Yet, the House’s reasoning for passing the Bill demonstrates that officials have been listening to and absorbing public sentiment all this time.
For example, House officials cited the following reasons in justifying why they now believe the marijuana decriminalization Bill must pass:
- Communities that have faced the most severe forms of disenfranchisement due to the current policies surrounding marijuana in the States have benefited the least from recent legal reform
- Federal statutes have not kept up with the States’ legal reforms concerning this substance
- The cost of enforcing the outdated, restrictive federal cannabis policies costs U.S. taxpayers about $3.6 billion annually, while the industry itself has economic promise, with current projections estimating $23 billion by as early as 2022
Before the 2020 election, cannabis was legal in 34 states (now 36) for medical use and 11 states (now 15 states and three territories) for adult recreational use. Still, a staggering 40% of drug arrests in 2018 were related to marijuana. Further, these were overwhelmingly for possession, and all had severe racial disparities.
This bill’s passing offers members of communities harmed by the war on drugs a new lease on life and a chance to have a “seat at the table” in the cannabis industry as it continues to boom alongside the new generation of related legislation.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019, also known as the MORE Act of 2019, proposes to delist cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance (specifically “marihuana” and tetrahydrocannabinol) within the first 180 days of the bill’s enactment.
For additional information on the MORE Act, see the text by following the link here.
What Could the 2019 MORE Act Mean for the Cannabis Industry?
The MORE Act of 2019 includes language that has directly addressed the cannabis industry’s current state and future. Not only could federal marijuana decriminalization boost the industry’s economic potential for medical and recreational products, but it will improve accessibility as well, even among those who were previously barred due to racial, criminal, or socioeconomic barriers.
For example, the bill proposes that the Treasury of the United States should establish an “Opportunity Trust Fund,” 20% of which should be delegated to the SBA (Small Business Administration) Administrator to enforce portions of the MORE Act. Furthermore, the new marijuana decriminalization law imposes an amended tax of 5% on cannabis products.
The updated legal definition of cannabis under the 2019 MORE Act is “any cannabis or any article which contains cannabis or any derivative thereof,” except for hemp products. This can include the plant stalks, seeds, fibers, oils, and other items with some form of cannabis extract.
So, if you’re producing cannabis and cannabis products for anyone other than yourself, you would be legally considered a “manufacturer” under this new standard if the bill is passed in the senate.
If you aspire to play a role in the cannabis industry, but you have a marijuana-related criminal record, this bill may offer you some hope. Some state’s laws made it impossible for people with felony marijuana charges to work in the industry. The MORE Act is written to be enforced both presently and retroactively, meaning that any non-violent marijuana charges and convictions against you will be expunged.
As the Bill itself mentioned, the cannabis industry is on track to reach a $23 billion market value as soon as 2022. If Americans are lucky enough to see this bill pass through the Senate, this could transform the U.S. economy at a time that we desperately need it.
Additionally, the enactment of the MORE Act’s marijuana decriminalization in 2020 could mean the introduction of millions of jobs across the States and the beginning of reduced racially- and socioeconomically-targeted arrest rates for non-violent drug offenses.
Last but not least, it could take the country another monumental step toward a stronger economy and potentially increase access to natural medical relief for a wide variety of symptoms that people often find too expensive to treat with commercial pharmaceutical solutions.
- “About Cannabis Policy.” Alcohol Policy Information System, https://alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov/about-cannabis-policy.
- ACLU. A Tale of Two Countries Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform. 2020.
- Congress, 116th. H.Res.1244 – Providing for Consideration of the Bill (H.R. 3884) to Decriminalize and Deschedule Cannabis, to Provide for Reinvestment in Certain Persons Adversely Impacted by the War on Drugs, to Provide for Expungement of Certain Cannabis Offenses, And . House of Representatives, 2020, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/1244.
- Fisher, George. “The Drug War at 100.” Stanford Law School, 2014, https://law.stanford.edu/2014/12/19/the-drug-war-at-100/.
- Reed, Carey. “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Hemp.” PBS, 2015, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/8-things-didnt-know-hemp.
- “State Medical Marijuana Laws.” National Conference of State Legislatures, 2020, https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-medical-marijuana-laws.aspx.
- Zhang, Mona. “Cannabis Industry Struggles With Hiring People With Past Pot Convictions.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 5 Oct. 2017, http://www.forbes.com/sites/monazhang/2017/10/04/cannabis-industry-hiring-people-past-pot-convictions/?sh=659221255cd4