Congress Passes Two Historic Cannabis Reform Bills

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Congress passes the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act and the Medical Marijuana Research Act in two historic votes, signifying a growing shift toward cannabis legalization.

In early December 2020, the US House of Representatives approved the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act in an historic vote. Through this momentous bill, it brings a relief-inducing effect for those advocating for the legalization of cannabis (1). For years, reform advocates have fought for the day where they would see a full floor vote ending prohibition in a chamber of Congress.

Under the MORE Act, cannabis would be federally descheduled, expunge records of individuals with prior convictions, and impose a federal 5% sales tax (2). This federal tax would remain at 5% the first two years and then increase by 1% each year until capping out at 8%. After five years, taxes would then be applied to cannabis products based on weight rather than price.

Although it has received passage through the House, many do not feel the bill will receive favorable support in the currently Republican-controlled Senate. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead sponsor for the Senate companion version of the bill.

Debate on the House floor strongly consisted of Democrats stating their case on how the reform will help address the racist war on drugs, while Republicans counter-argued that cannabis’s legalization would bring harms to public safety and children. Those opposed, such as Rep. Adrien Smith (R-NE), disputed that cannabis legalization’s time was not now and that there were more pressing matters such as COVID-19 relief (1).


“Across this nation, thousands of men and women have suffered needlessly from the federal criminalization of marijuana, particularly in communities of color and have borne the burden of collateral consequences for those ensnared in criminal legal systems that have damaged our society across generations,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said in her opening remarks (1). “This is unacceptable, and we must change our laws. It is time for Congress to catch up with the reforms that states are enacting.”

Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) urged Congress to “align federal cannabis laws with the will of the people.” Correa also showed his appreciation for House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the bill’s sponsor, for including one of his proposals which required a study of the benefits of medical cannabis for veterans in an adopted manager’s amendment. “Let’s take full advantage of the medical benefits of cannabis,” said Correa (1).

“The bottom line is, this vote is about freedom,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) mentioned (1). “It’s about freedom of choice for every American to make their own decisions for themselves without fear of the government coming and arresting them.”

Advocates remained optimistic about the MORE Act’s advancement through Congress but the bills prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate this session are not entirely promising. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY) has been showing support for the hemp industry but strongly condemns further cannabis reform. Even with the bill unlikely to move forward through the Senate, many are embracing the historic nature of a vote by a chamber of Congress.

“This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance, and it marks the first time in 24 years—when California became the first state to defy the federal government on the issue of marijuana prohibition—that Congress has sought to close the widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies,” said Justin Stekal, political director of NORML (1). “By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations—arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”

Chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), Aaron Smith expressed that, “the symbolic and historical importance of the MORE Act passing in the House cannot be overstated,” (1).

On December 9, 2020, days after approving to federally legalize cannabis, the US House of Representatives advanced a separate bill aiding to promote research into the plant and allowing scientists to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries (3). Known as the bipartisan Medical Marijuana Research Act, which was previously passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in September (4).

Lead sponsors of this legislation were Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD). “The cannabis laws in this country are broken, especially those that deal with research,” Blumenauer said on the House floor prior to the vote (3). “It’s a narrow bill that fixes one of many broken cannabis laws. And I want to hasten to add that this in no way negates the need to move forward with other areas of legalization… But this is sort of a foundational question. No matter where you are, there’s no reason the federal government should impede this critical research.”

Currently, it is not clear whether the GOP-controlled Senate will take up the Medical Marijuana Research Act before the end of the current Congress. If it does manage to be brought to the floor, it is expected to receive bipartisan support. In its original drafting, researchers were able to gain access to cannabis from additional federally approved private manufacturers. In September, an amendment was approved to include a component expanding access for scientists, who were now able to use cannabis products from state-legal dispensaries.

For the past half a century, researchers have only been able to study cannabis grown at a single federally approved facility at the University of Mississippi (Oxford, Mississippi). Many have complained that it is very difficult to obtain the product and that it is of low quality. One study performed displayed that the federal cannabis is more similar to hemp than to the cannabis consumers use in the real world (5).

Cannabis is steadily gaining more attention and evolving as it garners support. Hopefully, the MORE Act and Medical Marijuana Research Act will be picked up by the Senate and receive a favorable outcome.