Legislation that would push national marijuana legalization a step closer to becoming a reality may occur this week if Congress moves to ease marijuana restrictions. The House Rules Committee announced last Thursday intentions to hold a hearing regarding the bill on Monday. This can likely be the final step before consideration on the floor but with midterm elections approaching amid a growing urgency for politicians to be seen as tough on crime and a president who continues to oppose legal cannabis, there’s no guarantee that it will.
Ten Senate republican senators have said they will support the bill, most recently Richard Burr (R-N.C.) Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has also indicated support for it, encouraging speculation that passage in the upper chamber is possible. It is not clear when the bill may come up for a vote in the Senate.
On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would remove cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances. This would put an end to the state-federal conflict between 47 states which permit some form of legal/regulated cannabis and Washington. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, or H.R. 3617, was reintroduced by House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) with 74 cosponsors. Eighteen states, two territories and the District of Columbia —permit cannabis for nonmedical, i.e., recreational use.
If passed, the MORE Act would deschedule cannabis on the heels of the Senate unanimously passing a bill March 24 that would expand medical and scientific cannabis research. There is speculation that the Senate may introduce its own cannabis-descheduling proposal as early as next month.
The MORE Act would remove cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances while eliminating criminal penalties associated with it. Additionally it will add a federal marijuana sales tax to finance programs for communities adversely affected by the war on drugs and helps to form a process to expunge previous marijuana-related convictions.
"I have long believed that the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake. The racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws has only made it worse, with serious consequences, particularly for communities of color," Nadler said when the House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill last fall.
A parallel bill, the SAFE (Secure and Fair Enforcement) Banking Act S. 1200 HR 2215 would permit financial institutions to serve state-legal cannabis concerns. It would provide access to such basic banking services as small-business loans, credit lines and cash-management programs. Most banks are federally chartered and while there is a patchwork of generally smaller banks and other financial companies providing various levels of service to state-legal cannabis concerns, most banks have sidestepped the issue citing legal, operational and reputational risks.
The bill was criticized by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who described it as a “poison pill” when it was added to the China bill in February. The Act was introduced as an amendment by the bill’s sponsor, Representative Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), to allow banks and other financial institutions to cater to state-legal cannabis businesses. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently said he will formally file the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) in April.
“For over half a century, marijuana prohibition has stood as the cornerstone of the cruel and inhumane drug war that has robbed millions of their freedom and livelihoods,” said Maritza Perez, Director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) (www. drugpolicy.org) in a statement.
The announcement comes as record-high levels of Americans (68%) support legalizing marijuana according to Gallup's most recent State of the Global Workplace report. U.S. legal cannabis sales hit a record $17.5 billion in 2020.
While an overwhelming amount of adult Americans (91%) agree that marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use (60%) or that it should be legal for medical use only (31%). Fewer than one-in-ten (8%) say marijuana should not be legal for use by adults according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey (www.pewresearch.org).
Presently, cannabis remains restricted under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which enforces the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and its Anti-Money Laundering (AML) requirements, issued guidance (FIN-2014-G001) in 2014 that "…clarifies how financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses consistent with their BSA obligations."
The Rules Committee has announced it will officially take up the measure in a meeting on Monday afternoon making it ready for floor consideration. In 2020, the last time the MORE Act went to the floor it passed with a vote of 228-164. Five Republicans voted for reform including Rep. Don Young (R-AK), a bipartisan co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus who died March 18. It did not pass through what was at the time a Republican-controlled Senate.
While both Republicans and Democrats differ greatly on whether marijuana should be legal for medical and/or recreational use, there are also age divides within each party. A 63% majority of Republicans ages 18 to 29 favor making marijuana legal for recreational and medical use, compared with 53% of those ages 30 to 49 and 48% of those 50 to 64. However, only about a quarter of Republicans 65 and older (27%) say marijuana should be legal for both according to the Pew report.
“We are thankful that the House continues to pursue sensible cannabis policy reforms and is once again moving on this important bill,” Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) said in a statement.
Laws to make cannabis legal for adults have passed in 19 states as well as the District of Columbia, the territories of the Northern Mariani Islands and Guam. Thirty-six states as well as several territories have comprehensive medical cannabis laws. The substance is legal in some form in 47 states according to the trade group National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) (www. thecannabisindustry.org).
Jeffrey Dumas is 30-year-plus financial services public relations professional in New York.
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