House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris are introducing legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and repair "the damage done by the war on drugs" as cannabis reform gains steam in Congress.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or the MORE Act, would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, decriminalizing the drug and allowing states to write their own policies. The legislation would require pot convictions to be expunged or resentenced.
It would also create federal protections, such as prohibiting federal agencies from denying benefits to people found using marijuana and preventing immigrants from being deported for a cannabis-related conviction. The bill establishes a 5% cannabis tax to set up grants for minorities and low-income communities.
"Racially motivated enforcement of marijuana laws has disproportionately impacted communities of color," Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "It's past time to right this wrong nationwide and work to view marijuana use as an issue of personal choice and public health, not criminal behavior."
In focusing on decriminalization and social and criminal justice reforms, supporters call the bill the "most comprehensive" such bill yet. Lawmaker are increasingly interested in easing the nation's marijuana laws. Eleven states have legalized recreational use. A Gallup poll conducted in the spring found 64% of Americans support legalization.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security earlier this month held a hearing, with numerous members of Congress saying they wanted to loosen federal laws. The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs will hold a hearing Tuesday on challenges the cannabis industry faces in getting financial services.
"Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime," Harris said in a statement.
Several other cannabis bills have been introduced in the past year from Democrats running for president, including Sen. Cory Booker's Marijuana Justice Act and Sen. Elizabeth Warren's Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act, or STATES Act.
"This is the most comprehensive and functional legislation put forth," Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said of the Nadler-Harris proposal.
Ten national organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, formed the Marijuana Justice Coalition this month to advocate for criminal justice reform and diversity promotion in cannabis legislation. While legalizing marijuana can be a huge economic boon, critics say minorities are being left out.
"We think it's deeply unfair that now people are making so much money and so much wealth being created from regulated marijuana markets when historically people of color and low-income people have bore the brunt of drug enforcement policy in this country," said Maritza Perez, a senior policy analyst for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress, which backs the bill.
The Nadler-Harris bill uses cannabis tax revenue to set up three funds to help people in communities that have been harmed in the War on Drugs. The community reinvestment grant would provide job training, legal aid and other social programs. The bill calls to create a Cannabis Justice Officer to administer the money.
The cannabis opportunity grant would offer loans to help marijuana businesses that are owned and operated by "socially and economically disadvantaged individuals." The equitable licensing grant would help states develop "equitable cannabis licensing programs" to minimize barriers to entry.
Wanda James, the first African-American woman to open a dispensary in Colorado, said the provisions in the bill addresses "the core of what needs to change." She applauds provisions that prohibit regulators from denying cannabis licenses based on cannabis convictions. James said she had to fire her brother from her first dispensary because at the time, Colorado prevented anyone who had nonviolent drug offenses to work in the cannabis industry.
"We started to see communities targeted for drug offenses and purposely being left out of the ability to be part of the business community of cannabis," she said.
Nadler plans to introduce the bill in the House and Harris, D-Calif., plans to introduce the bill in the Senate on Tuesday. Nadler's backing gives the legislation a powerful ally in the House. He chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which would need to clear legislation decriminalizing marijuana.
Even if the bill passes the Democratically controlled House, the MORE Act will likely have a tougher time in the Republican-controlled Senate. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell championed legalizing hemp-derived cannabidiol, he has opposed marijuana.