Democrats Scuttle Marijuana Decriminalization Vote Over Fears of Not Being Deferential Enough to Cop Lobbyists

If Congress is too afraid to vote on marijuana reform, how the hell are they ever going to pass policing reform?


A planned House vote on a bill to decriminalize the possession of marijuana was canceled on Thursday under pressure from law enforcement lobbyists and other pro-prohibition special interests.

The expected floor vote on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would have been the biggest accomplishment yet for cannabis reformers, but the effort has been postponed until after Election Day, Politico reports. Democrats have gotten weak-kneed about a bill that they once saw as a major criminal justice reform.

Indeed, it would have been. The MORE Act, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D–N.Y.), would remove cannabis from the schedules of the Controlled Substances Act and make that change retroactive, effectively expunging any federal marijuana offenses and convictions. The bill also orders federal courts to lift all sentences for people currently locked up due to a marijuana conviction.

As Reason's Jacob Sullum explained when the bill was introduced last year, the MORE Act was in many ways superior to other marijuana legislation, because it "completely deschedules marijuana rather than moving it to a lower schedule or making exceptions to the ban for state-legal conduct, and it seeks to lift the burdens that prohibition has imposed on people caught growing, distributing, or possessing cannabis, a vital project that too often has been treated as an afterthought."

This year, the bill had collected more than 100 co-sponsorships in the House—it even had support from three Republicans—and appeared on track to pass the lower chamber. Even though the bill was expected to die in the Senate, that House vote would have been historic.

Unfortunately, cop lobbyists seem to have convinced House Democratic leaders that it would also be a liability. A coalition of law enforcement special interests and other proponents of the drug war sent a letter to congressional leaders last week warning about the potential dangers associated with legalizing and "commercializing" marijuana.

That, combined with vague fears about how Republicans might weaponize the legalization vote for negative ads in swing districts, was apparently enough to convince Democrats to scuttle the vote.

That isn't just disappointing: It's pretty pathetic. Democrats were right to position the MORE Act as a vehicle for racial justice and a key step toward addressing the problems of America's criminal justice system. The war on drugs is deliberately racist, and it always has been. Decriminalizing marijuana would a pretty good first step towards righting those wrongs.

But even after everything that happened this summer to put criminal justice in the foreground of the national conversation, and even with polls showing that most Americans (and a larger share of Democrats) support the legalization of marijuana, Democratic leaders were still too spooked to take an important and historic vote. That's just sad.

If police interests find it this easy to shut down marijuana reform—which doesn't even really affect the way cops do their jobs, aside from removing one of the excuses they might use to stop, search, and seize an innocent person's stuff—how can House Democrats talk about passing policing reforms with a straight face?