Last week the U.S House of Representatives voted in favour of passing the MORE Act, which proposes to decriminalise cannabis at a federal level. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act was passed in the House with 228 to 164 votes. This bill aims to end cannabis prohibition, and address the social and economic harm caused by the federal control of cannabis, under the Controlled Substances Act.
There are four key elements to this initiative: the proposal to expunge all federal cannabis convictions; make cannabis investment and financing easier; tax the adult use cannabis market; create a trust fund to help black and Latin American communities who have been impacted by the war on drugs.
The proposal to expunge federal cannabis convictions is a social justice issue at the core of cannabis reform, which many advocates fear may get lost in the excitement of regulation. It’s estimated that there are 40,000 people currently in federal prisons for cannabis charges, and in 2019 cannabis charges made up 8.6% of federal drug cases. In 2010 cannabis convictions accounted for 52% of all drug convictions in the US, but it’s worth noting that in the past two decades rates of both state and Federal cannabis convictions have decreased dramatically.
Some argue that the federal decriminalisation of cannabis has the potential to end mass incarceration, but this idea is utopian and fails to take into account the full complexities of hyper incarceration. Considering that incarceration rates have remained the same for the past 20 years, but cannabis convictions are falling it’s likely that this reform will have relatively little direct and immediate impact on incarceration rates. Though undoubtedly there will be gradual and indirect effects felt in other areas of the criminal justice system, for example local jails. In 2020 157,000 people were held in jail on remand for drug offences, of which 120,000 had not yet faced trial. If cannabis were decriminalised we could see remand rates decrease, but it is also important to understand that states have autonomy over their laws, and federal decriminalisation doesn’t necessarily mean that all states will decriminalise cannabis
Moreover mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences, as well as habitual offender laws still remain in some states. These are two other factors which perpetuate incarceration rates, as well as sentencing lengths for drug related crime; therefore if cannabis were federally decriminalised it could impact rates of sentencing under these laws. If an offender were to be convicted of 3 cannabis offences they would be given a mandatory life sentence, this is because cannabis is federally classed as a schedule I drug, and deemed a serious offence, therefore subject to the three-strikes laws. Nonetheless, the expungement of cannabis convictions is an important element of cannabis reform, which will have a positive impact on the lives of many already who have already been convicted for cannabis offences.
As we have highlighted before, the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted black and Latin American communities. Therefore, the proposal for a trust fund to help these communities is an incredibly important step for America to take. This proposal acknowledges the harm that the war on drugs has caused, but also that this harm has been disproportionately felt by the black and Latin American communities. The data on DEA drug cases shows racial disparities are still prevalent in federal cannabis cases: 13.4% of federal cannabis offenders white; 14.1% were black; and 67.6% were Latin American.
However, it’s important to emphasise that racial disparities vary from state to state, generally the Southern states arrest, convict and incarcerate black people at higher rates than Northern states. For example, in Alabama black people are 4 times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis possession than white people, whereas in New Jersey black people are 3 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people. Racial disparities are prevalent in both states, but these regional differences reinforce the importance of addressing cannabis reform at a state level. Nonetheless, we should be excited and remain optimistic about federal decriminalisation, because the proposed federal trust fund can help rebuild and support these communities, regardless of whether cannabis laws have been reformed at a state level.
These social justice issues are without a doubt incredibly important, and it’s fantastic that the MORE Act has sought to address them. The bill also proposes to tax the adult-use market, and address the financial challenges that arise when investing in the industry, or starting a cannabis company. The significance of the economic argument is often downplayed, but these are both important elements to reform that are necessary for the industry to grow; to allow for equal investment and business opportunities in the industry; and to address the social and racial injustices caused by over 50 years of cannabis prohibition.
While this is a historic vote in cannabis reform, it’s important to understand that before the bill is officially ratified into Federal law it has to be voted on by the Senate, and then signed off by the President. If the MORE Act was presented to Congress now it is unlikely that the Republican controlled Senate will pass the bill; which is seemingly bad news, but if you look at the bigger picture you will see this is still an achievement.
In January a special vote will take place in Georgia to elect class II and class III members of the Senate. This Senate runoff is taking place because no candidate for the class II Senate membership received a majority in the 2020 elections; and also to replace a class III member of the Senate who resigned in 2019. Georgia is a swing state, and while Biden won this state in the presidential elections the results were neck and neck, with Biden receiving 49.5% of the vote. Therefore it is possible that Democrats could win control of the Senate in January, however it’s a tough one to call.
Once these new members of the Senate have been elected the MORE act will dissolve, which may seem like this is an achievement unworthy of celebration. But it’s important to emphasise that the proposal to Federally decriminalisation of cannabis has strong support from the U.S. House of Representatives, who will remain in control of the house for the next 4 years. While it may take a bit of back and forth, this issue is on the agenda and has tremendous backing.
If the Democrats gain control of the Senate in January there is a much stronger chance that the MORE act will be passed, and then the Federal decriminalisation of cannabis can come into effect. It’s fair to say that medicalisation and legislation which has already taken place in some states has driven reform elsewhere in the world, and if the US were to federally decriminalise cannabis this could be an exciting time for global cannabis reform.
Ella Walsh is Content Officer at Volteface. Tweets @snoop_Ella