What Federal Cannabis Decriminalization Would Mean

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Left-leaning policy wonks call it the biggest political layup of our time. It enjoys rare bipartisan support in a time of rancorous political division. It would lower rates of incarceration among people of color and chip away at the prison industrial complex.

So why has cannabis not yet been legalized, or at least decriminalized, on the federal level?

Congress is poised to tackle the issue in December when it votes on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019, aka the MORE Act. If passed, the decriminalization bill would impose sweeping changes to the ways weed functions in society, and offer a sign of retreat in the U.S. government’s decades-long war on drugs.

Even as Americans grow more divided politically, cannabis continues to gain ground with every…

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 is a bill sponsored by former Senator and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris that would decriminalize weed by removing it from the government’s list of controlled substances

The legislation aims to establish a host of reforms that could stimulate a massive overhaul of outdated laws affecting criminal sentencing, sales tax collection, and cannabis’s broader economic utility.

Here’s a high altitude glance at what the MORE Act hopes to accomplish:

  • Removal of federal criminal penalties on cannabis, by establishing “a process to expunge convictions and conduct sentencing review hearings related to federal cannabis offenses.”
  • Impose a 5% federal tax on all weed sales and deposit those funds into a trust fund to support “various programs and services for individuals and businesses in communities impacted by the war on drugs.”
  • Make Small Business Administration loans available to cannabis-related businesses.
  • Prohibit denial of federal benefits “on the basis of certain cannabis-related conduct or convictions.”
  • Prohibit denial of federal benefits to immigrants on basis of cannabis-related offenses.

The difference between decriminalization and legalization

While advocates of cannabis policy-reform are excited for the MORE Act’s economic and social potential, it’s important to highlight some distinctions between decriminalization and outright legalization.

As the Center for American Progress lays out:

Decriminalization means that the possession of small amounts of marijuana will trigger lower or no criminal penalties, although fines and citations may still be levied. In New York, for example, the possession of a small amount of marijuana for recreational use will not lead to an arrest, but the state criminalizes marijuana consumption in public view.11 Generally, the possession of larger amounts and trafficking of marijuana remain criminally illegal under this system. Many jurisdictions have chosen to decriminalize marijuana in order to prioritize higher-level crimes and cut down on justice-related costs.

How would decriminalization affect the criminal justice system?

Since 1970, cannabis has been classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the same legal classification as drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. The classification has contributed to soaring incarceration rates in the United States, particularly among Black and latino men.

The Marijuana Policy Project provides a great synopsis of the ways cannabis’s illicit status has directly contributed to the U.S. prison pipeline:

FBI statistics show that 90% of the more than 600,000 cannabis arrests each year are for possession, and cannabis comprises nearly half of all drug possession arrests in the country. Behind these numbers are decades of oppressive policing, with African American and Latinx youth systematically targeted for harassment and intimidation.

Further research highlights how the simple possession of cannabis has directly fueled the staggering rise in prison population in the United States, which now exceeds 2.3 million people, according to the Prison Policy institute. As a sprawling analysis of drug arrest records data conducted by the ACLU reveals, cannabis arrests now account for half of the total drug arrests nationally.

The analysis found that the heavy policing of cannabis possession had distinct racial overtones:

Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.

The economic benefits

For states with dwindling budgets and revenue, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to batter the economy, decriminalization and legalization carry massive economic potential. Though it’s still too early to determine how fully legalized weed has faired financially in various states, some lessons from recreationally-legal states like Washington and Colorado could prove instructive as the issue gains national popularity.

According to the non-profit Tax Foundation, both states are early case studies that should raise the eyebrows of any governor hungry for economic stimulus:

Marijuana tax collections in Colorado and Washington have exceeded initial estimates, and a nationwide legalization-and-tax regime could see states raise billions of dollars per year in marijuana tax revenue.

The cannabis industry is also a job creator. In 2018, the industry saw record job growth, with industry organization Leafly reporting employment figures in the range of 211,000, and nationwide sales near $11 billion as of 2018.

Will the MORE Act pass?

It’s unclear. In a time of massive polarization within congress and the U.S. in general, the MORE Act appears likely to gain at least some support from Republicans, but meeting the threshold required to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate might be a tall order. When the bill was initially brought to the House floor in September—after being delayed in the Senate due to deliberations over a pandemic stimulus package—it carried support from Republican reps Matt Gaetz and Tom McClintock.

In short, we’re a long way from full legalization, but the passage of the MORE Act would be a significant step toward it. It will be interesting to see how the vote shakes out in December.

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