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The U.S. House of Representatives is set to legalize weed, but the Senate will probably stub out the bill

click to enlarge Southern Arizona NORML Director Mike Robinette
  • Southern Arizona NORML Director Mike Robinette

As Arizona pot advocates await the results of November's vote on Proposition 207 (AKA Smart and Safe Arizona) that would allow adults to consume cannabis without a hassle, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is poised to vote next week on legislation that would go a long way toward normalizing the plant in the eyes of the law.

House Resolution 3884, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, is a federal attempt at legalization, following the lead of a majority of states that have already decriminalized pot in some form.

The MORE Act, introduced in September 2019 by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would "decriminalize and deschedule cannabis, to provide for reinvestment in certain persons adversely impacted by the War on Drugs [and] provide for expungement of certain cannabis offenses," paving the way to address problems caused by conflicting federal and state laws.

The bill recently passed out of the House Judiciary Committee and is awaiting floor vote expected the week of Sept. 21.

As of deadline, 99 members of Congress have signed on—98 Democrats and one Republican, Matt Gaetz (R-FL)—and it should pass the House, although the Republican-controlled Senate will likely be a barrier to creating sensible pot legislation.

"Me and my democratic colleagues in the House have passed a lot of incredible legislation this Congress," Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick wrote in a recent email. "However, Leader McConnell has failed to bring a lot of our bills to the Senate floor because he knows that they would pass with public pressure. The MORE Act is just one example of meaningful, common sense legislation that we can get done and make law with a new President and Senate majority. The public wants the MORE Act, it just makes sense."

Kirkpatrick signed on last month, joining fellow Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Ruben Gallego, who supported the bill from its inception.

The MORE Act removes cannabis and its derivatives from Schedule I classification, which includes "substances, or chemicals ... defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." Other drugs on that list include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote.

"Descheduling" is just the first step. The Act would require federal courts to purge convictions for cannabis-related offenses and allow re-sentencing for individuals with federal convictions. The lion's share of the act, though, is devoted to describing social equity programs funded via a 5 percent tax to be reinvested into communities that have been hurt most by weed's mixed legal status.

It also seeks to right some of the wrongs inflicted on American citizens by the decades-long War on Drugs.

The act would create a Cannabis Justice Office to disperse an "opportunity trust fund," providing grants and resources for programs from expungement to community investment to drug treatment.

Individuals with cannabis-related convictions would be eligible to hold dispensary licenses as part of an equitable licensing grant program that reaches economically underserved communities "to minimize barriers to cannabis licensing and employment for individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs."

Additionally, MORE would serve to destigmatize cannabis-related businesses, allowing access to Small Business Administration grants and programs, such as the mentoring program SCORE, a veteran's outreach program and microloans and disaster relief grants for those affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

It would also allow individuals with expunged cannabis-related convictions access to security clearances; job training; reentry services; legal aid for civil and criminal cases, including expungement; literacy programs; youth recreation or mentoring programs; health education programs and substance use treatment services to further expand career opportunities.

MORE would also be a boon to veterans, particularly those facing addiction and mental health issues.

A common thread throughout the text of the bill, and a major subtext, is making reparations for the damage done by the decades-long War on Drugs.

"Draconian laws criminalizing cannabis usage have spawned an incarceration crisis, created broken families, and have severely limited research and usage of cannabis for medicinal purposes," said Congressman Grijalva in a recent email. "It's time to right the wrongs of mass criminalization from the past and change the way we treat cannabis usage by providing relief to people most adversely impacted by the war on drugs. The MORE Act is a positive step toward a more just approach to cannabis regulation that puts science-based evidence first over exaggerated fears about its dangers."

The War on Drugs has always been with us in some form, but for the past 50 years—particularly in the wake of the Reagan administration—cannabis hysteria has been stoked, with drug laws often used to marginalize targeted communities for political purposes.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to ending the War on Drugs, the U.S. spends more than $47 billion annually on drug enforcement. In 2018, there were 663,367 cannabis-related arrests, with 608,775 of those for possession only.

The arrests hammer communities of color, as 27 percent of drug law violation arrests were members of Black communities, despite African-Americans making up 13.4 percent of the population.

There are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., the highest incarceration rate in the world

Should we legalize all drugs, the DPA estimates annual budgetary gains in state, local and federal taxes, plus saving $47 billion a year in ineffective enforcement expenditures, would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $106.7 billion.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most drug laws were enacted to target specific minority groups. In the 1870s, anti-opium laws directed at Chinese immigrants went into effect, while in the early part of the 20th century, anti-cocaine laws targeted Black men in the south and early marijuana laws were intended for Mexican migrant workers and Mexican Americans. The term "marijuana" made its way into the American lexicon as a way of making it scarier to white folks.

President Richard M. Nixon began the current—and likely most destructive—War on Drugs in 1971 in response to the anti-war movement of the late '60s, when pot became synonymous with youthful rebellion and political dissent.

In 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency, but he ran into problems leading a society that was ready to decriminalize weed, with 11 states taking matters into their own hands from 1973-'77.

The Senate Judiciary Committee in fact voted to decriminalize up to an ounce, and Jimmy Carter ran with decriminalization in his presidential platform, but then the Reagan years stoked fears and Just Say No took the place of spending on social and mental health programs.

In October 1986, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, appropriating $1.7 billion to fight the War on Drugs and creating mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses, which increased racial disparities in the prison population.

The number of people who went to jail for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997.

Through 40-plus years of federal fear-mongering and spending, the war on drugs has become capitalized and enforcement punitive for even the smallest offense.

But since 1995, when California first legalized medicinal cannabis, the tide has turned, and now the American public seems ready for real drug policy reform.

The question is whether national Republicans have the political will to to follow the will of the people.

Even if MORE passes, there is still a lot of work to do. While MORE seeks to start the process of changing the direction of drug policy in the U.S., it does not address some core issues in banking and tax laws that inhibit growth in the cannabis industry.

The Secure And Fair Enforcement Banking Act, which would allow cannabis-related business access to banking services and investment opportunities, has been attached to the Heroes Act, the COVID stimulus bill that has stalled in the Senate due to Republican obstinacy.

The Southern Arizona chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is fully in support of MORE as it follows the political process that can be frustrating no matter which party is in power or who is president.

Southern Arizona NORML Director Mike Robinette believes descheduling is the only way to go in order to end pot prohibition.

"Biden wants to reschedule, but NORML has been strong about descheduling and this bill will get that done," he said. "Marijuana laws have helped marginalize communities of color and descheduling opens up opportunities in every state and makes grants and funding available for reinvestment in those communities."

He added that it fits in with NORML's mission, but is just one more step in the process.

"Do we just legalize it and then go away?" Robinette posits. "No. We're playing a long game and are already focused on a post-legalization world."

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