Recent federal legislation to decriminalize marijuana and expunge nonviolent, weed-related convictions is being hailed as a nationwide victory for the cannabis normalization movement.
And while it may represent some big strides toward reform, it still leaves more to be desired.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which passed the House this month by a vote of 228-164, aims to permanently erase marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances, formally and finally decriminalizing the plant across the entire country.
Entrepreneurs have labeled the legislation as a lucrative opportunity to expand interstate marijuana operations.
The bill carries provisions that would allow for the automatic expungement of certain pot-related criminal convictions. It would also authorize a 5% sales tax on marijuana that would, in turn, help fund grant programs for low-income communities of color — those most disproportionately affected by decades of criminalization within an overtly harmless (and lucrative) illicit market.
The bill, for now, appears doomed in the Republican-controlled Senate. Majority Leader (and decaying crypt keeper) Mitch McConnell has reportedly derided the legislation as a superficial distraction from COVID-19 relief. But even if the MORE Act somehow finds its way into law, it still leaves room for major reforms.
A clause in the legislation, as passed by the House, makes it illegal for those convicted of a cannabis-related felony to join the newly legalized industry. The justification: Those former criminals would be “not likely” to comply within a fully regulated market, according to the bill.
It’s entirely mind boggling how legislation designed to right the wrongs of decades of unfair cannabis criminalization could actually punish those who helped to build the industry. Even more surprising? Most marijuana reform groups appear to have overlooked this issue.
“A lot of national groups seem to be taking victory laps over this legislation either without addressing this issue or without recognizing the problem,” said Ryan Basore, founder of Redemption Cannabis Co. and former director of business development for the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association. “It may be an oversight, but that just needs to be removed.”
Basore spent time in federal prison on a marijuana conviction. The language in the bill could theoretically prevent him from staying involved in the federally licensed cannabis market.
Steven Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project, called it “unacceptable.”
“Not only does this requirement violate both the spirit and intent of this historic legislation, it is strongly at odds with many of the provisions contained in MORE Act itself, including the expungement of records and efforts to remove barriers from past convictions,” he explained.
The Marijuana Policy Project still supports the legislation but is asking for immediate changes.
“At this point, it just seems like a huge oversight,” Basore added. “We’re being told that it will be taken out — that is if it stands a chance in the Senate. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
If it passes, the MORES Act would also hand states the power and incentives to enact their own specific reforms on the newly legalized industry. Fifteen states have already voted to legalize recreational marijuana. At least 36 states have authorized some form of medical marijuana.
A recent Gallup poll also shows that 68% of Americans support federal marijuana legalization.
Kyle Kaminski is a City Pulse staff writer and cannabis enthusiast who has been smoking marijuana just about every day for the last decade. Most weeks, Kaminski samples some of the best cannabis products available in Greater Lansing, gets real high and writes about them. On occasion, he also shares his opinion on various issues that are facing the cannabis industry.