BY JESSICA CASTILLO | Photo by Romain Dancre
As more and more states decriminalize cannabis—and often, fully legalize and regulate the plant for recreational use—it seems that the United States is entering a new era of normalization. But cannabis is still considered a Schedule 1 drug by the Food and Drug Administration, and remains criminalized on the federal level. That could change if lawmakers pass a landmark bill that not only reclassifies cannabis, but sets historically disenfranchised communities up to join a growing industry and reap the benefits.
Called the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021, or the MORE Act for short, the bill was introduced by Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY) in May. It has been cosponsored by over 50 Democratic representatives, including Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and Nydia Velazquez (D-NY). And while it’s not clear when the House will vote on the bill, the likelihood of its passing is promising; a similar bill passed the House in 2020, though it failed in the Senate.
In a statement given to NBC News when he introduced the bill, Rep. Nadler noted, "Since I introduced the MORE Act last Congress, numerous states across the nation, including my home state of New York, have moved to legalize marijuana. Our federal laws must keep up with this pace."
Crucially, the MORE Act of 2021 is more progressive than the MORE Act of 2020. Here’s what you need to know about the bill, and what may be next in the fight to decriminalize cannabis on the federal level.
According to its official text, the MORE Act aims “to decriminalize and deschedule cannabis, to provide for reinvestment in certain persons adversely impacted by the War on Drugs, [and] to provide for expungement of certain cannabis offenses.” Throughout its text, it addresses the fact that Black and Latinx people are more likely than their white, non-Latinx counterparts to serve longer, harsher sentences for cannabis convictions, many of which can have a lasting impact on people’s lives.
"It is clear, by the overwhelming extent to which they passed the MORE Act last session, that the House understands this for the urgent racial and social justice issue it is,” Maritza Perez, the Director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “Our communities that have borne the brunt of marijuana prohibition have waited long enough for justice. We urge House leadership to move swiftly to bring the bill back to the floor this session, so that we can continue the momentum and move a marijuana justice bill in the Senate as well."
If passed, the MORE Act would remove cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances, which classifies certain drugs by their medical value and potential for abuse, Vox notes. The declassification would make it easier for researchers to study the potential benefits and effects of cannabis on humans. “Removing marijuana from its restrictive Schedule I classification would open the door for greater and deeper understanding of its properties, and more access for qualifying patients,” a coalition of public health professionals and organizations wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-NY) in August 2020.
The organization also noted the benefits of passing the MORE Act for medical marijuana patients as well as communities of color who have disproportionately been targeted during cannabis prohibition. “Any system that perpetuates inequities [...] are inherently unjust and unhealthy—inequities lead to disparities in access to health care, resources, and support, which in turn is a major indicator of poor health outcomes,” the coalition noted.
To start, the MORE Act of 2021 establishes a new tax on cannabis imports and production, which will then be directed to a newly-created “Opportunity Trust Fund.” The tax starts at five percent and will grow to eight percent over three years. Sixty percent of those funds will be directed to the Attorney General of the United States, but 40 percent will be used by the Small Business Administration to invest in communities who have been most impacted by prohibition and policing.
In part, the SBA will be in charge of establishing the Cannabis Restorative Opportunity Program, which is meant to “provide loans and technical assistance [...] to assist small business concerns owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals that operate in eligible States or localities.” An additional Community Reinvestment Grant Program would focus on providing job training; reentry services; legal aid for civil and criminal cases, as well as cannabis-related expungement services; and literacy, youth, and health programs for disenfranchised communities.
As for expungement, the MORE Act of 2021 specifically notes that the Equitable Licensing Grant Program will only be made available to states thatwho have made an expungement process that is “automatic” and “at no cost to the individual,” as well as efforts to “eliminate violations or other penalties for persons under parole, probation, pre-trial, or other State or local criminal supervision for a cannabis offense.” Given that the expungement process can be time- and money-intensive, this is a crucial element of restorative justice—but even in progressive states like California and New York, where such measures have passed, the process of establishing and clearing these records can take years if districts don’t have the support necessary to do so.
The bill establishes that courts review convictions related to non-violent cannabis-related offenses no later than one year after the potential passage of the MORE Act. This might still be a lengthy, bureaucratic process, but it does establish that eligible convictions be vacated, expunged, or sealed. Other convictions may be eligible for reduced sentencing.
As wide-reaching as the MORE Act is, it does have its limitations. In a statement, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’s Interim President and CEO, Wade Henderson, praised the bill for representing “a historic opportunity to address the decades of harm perpetrated by federal marijuana criminalization on communities of color and low-income communities.” But Henderson also noted that the bill “explicitly exempts those who have received a ‘kingpin’ sentencing enhancement relating to a marijuana conviction from expungement eligibility,.” referring to the clause that bars anyone who was sentenced for an “aggravating role” rather than being sentenced as the sole actor.
“This exclusion undermines the purpose of the bill and continues to perpetuate the War on Drugs,” Henderson said in the statement. “Congress should amend the bill to make those with such convictions eligible for expungement within five years, assuming there have been no new convictions in the intervening time. Such a change will stay true to the intent of the bill and provide relief to those caught up in draconian enforcement efforts.”
At present, the MORE Act has been referred to nine committees in the House, but there is no telling when they might advance from those committees and back to a vote. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is expected to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.
In the meantime, advocacy groups are pushing Congress to act sooner rather than later. “With the majority of Americans in favor of marijuana legalization for adult use, and the way in which communities of color have been devastated by prohibition finally being widely acknowledged, prioritizing marijuana reform that begins to undo this harm and give back to those communities should be a no-brainer,” Queen Adesuyi, the Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “This bill is meant to comprehensively address the widespread harms of prohibition, and it is impossible to do that if we are still leaving those that have already paid the steepest price out.”