Will a Historic House Vote on Marijuana Legalization Nudge Biden Toward More Ambitious Reforms?

The MORE Act, which would repeal federal prohibition, is scheduled for a vote this week.


This week the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill that would repeal the federal ban on marijuana, the first time the chamber has considered that move. While the bill is unlikely to get an enthusiastic reception in the Republican-controlled Senate, it is an important milestone in the fight against marijuana prohibition, which Congress enacted in the guise of a revenue measure 83 years ago and reaffirmed in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970.

As currently written, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D–N.Y.), would remove cannabis from the CSA's schedules and eliminate federal criminal penalties for growing, distributing, or possessing it. The bill would establish "an automatic process" for expunging the records of people who were convicted of federal marijuana crimes and authorize resentencing of federal prisoners serving time for such offenses.

The MORE Act—which has 120 cosponsors, all but one Democrats—also would prohibit the denial of federal public benefits because of convictions involving cannabis consumption and eliminate immigration disabilities based on marijuana-related conduct. Less promisingly, the bill would impose a 5 percent federal tax on cannabis products, rising to 6 percent after two years, 7 percent after three years, and 8 percent after four years. The revenue would be assigned to drug treatment, "services for individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs," loans for marijuana businesses owned by "socially and economically disadvantaged individuals," and grants aimed at reducing "barriers to cannabis licensing and employment for individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs."*

Democrats had planned to vote on the MORE Act before the election but reconsidered, apparently in response to concerns raised by law enforcement groups and fears that supporting legalization would hurt rather than help some of their party's candidates. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D–Md.) recently announced that the vote will happen this week instead, probably on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday.

Democratic skittishness on this issue may seem surprising in light of public opinion. According to the latest Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans, including 83 percent of Democrats, favor legalization. While that poll found that 52 percent of Republicans still support prohibition, this month's election results in three red states show that marijuana reform has cross-partisan appeal. Mississippi voters approved medical marijuana, Montana expanded its tolerance of medical use to include recreational consumption, and South Dakota became the first state to simultaneously legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use. Recreational legalization also passed in Arizona, lately classified as a purple state, and in deep-blue New Jersey.

All told, 36 states recognize cannabis as a medicine, including 15 that also have legalized recreational use. The latter group includes about one in three Americans.

"I've been working on this issue longer than any politician in America and can confidently say that the MORE Act is the most comprehensive federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history," Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D–Ore.), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a press release last week. "Our vote to pass it next week will come after people in five very different states reaffirmed the strong bipartisan support to reform the failed cannabis prohibition. National support for federal cannabis legalization is at an all-time high….Congress must capitalize on this momentum and do our part to end the failed policy of prohibition." 

Despite their pre-election misgivings, House Democrats look brave compared to President-elect Joe Biden, a supposedly reformed drug warrior who continues to resist federal legalization, unlike most of the candidates he beat for his party's nomination. His pro-legalization rivals included Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, a recent convert who sponsored the Senate version of the MORE Act. While the 2016 Democratic Party platform supported "a reasoned pathway for future legalization," this year's Biden-shaped platform does not even aspire to that vague goal.

Biden instead says he wants to "decriminalize cannabis use," expunge the records related to such cases, and move marijuana to a less restrictive legal category. Those first two steps would not have much impact, since the Justice Department rarely prosecutes low-level possession cases. Moving marijuana from Schedule I of the CSA, a category supposedly reserved for exceptionally dangerous drugs with no accepted medical use, to Schedule II, which indicates that a drug has a high abuse potential but can be used as a medicine, might facilitate research. But it would not address the untenable conflict between the CSA and state laws that allow medical or recreational use of marijuana, which casts a dark shadow over the burgeoning cannabis industry.

Might House passage of the MORE Act nudge Biden in a more ambitious direction? If he can't bring himself to support outright repeal of marijuana prohibition, maybe he could see the political appeal of amending the CSA so that it does not apply to state-legal conduct, as a 2017 House bill that attracted bipartisan support would have done. That approach would jibe with Biden's promise to "leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states," and it should appeal to the federalist instincts of at least some Republican legislators.

If that is also off the table, Biden might be persuaded to support piecemeal reforms with a better chance of passing both chambers. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, for instance, would protect banks that serve state-licensed marijuana businesses from the threat of criminal penalties and potentially ruinous regulatory sanctions. The bill, introduced by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D–Colo.), attracted 206 cosponsors, including 26 Republicans, and passed the House by a margin of more than 3 to 1 in September. It would address a longstanding problem that makes it difficult for state-legal cannabusinesses to access financial services.

The Small Business Tax Equity Act would amend Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code, which prohibits state-licensed marijuana suppliers from deducting business expenses on their federal returns. That bill, which was introduced by Blumenauer, would eliminate a disability that can raise a marijuana supplier's effective tax rate to as high as 75 percent. It currently has just 11 cosponsors, including two Republicans. But it should be a relatively easy sell for Republicans who generally support federalism and champion small businesses.

Another Blumenauer bill, the Veterans Equal Access Act, would allow doctors in the V.A. health care system to recommend medical marijuana in states where it is legal. That bill has 21 cosponsors, including seven Republicans. It's a modest reform that should appeal to legislators who want to be seen as standing up for veterans, especially now that 70 percent of the states allow medical use of cannabis.

Biden may never come around on marijuana legalization. But he could still support steps like these, which would significantly reduce the harm caused by federal prohibition. A historic House vote to repeal that ban would allow him to go further than he has so far without sacrificing his cherished reputation as a moderate.

[*This post has been revised to correct the distribution of cannabis tax revenue and to note that the tax rate rises after the first two years under the amended version of the MORE Act.]

NEXT: Neera Tanden, Biden's Pick for Budget Office: Now Is Not the Time To 'Worry About Raising Deficits and Debt'

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  1. Let’s see. Democrats must be opposed as a matter of principle, which means this bill sucks. Right Trumpistas?

    1. Still looking to the federal government for answers Shreek? Fuck off slaver.

      1. Your what hurts?

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    2. It’s not like Biden and Harris have a long track record of supporting the drug war and locking up minorities for drug usage… oh wait…

      1. We’re talking about Congress. Try to keep up.

        1. Biden was a member of Congress longer than I’ve been alive. Harris is technically still a member of Congress

          1. Are Democrats or Republicans in congress more likely to support this? I don’t think anyone is pretending that Democrats haven’t been just as pro drug war as anyone. But they have been more likely to approve small reforms of marijuana laws.

            1. I’m not sure this would be considered a small reform. I think it might actually legalize in a few states that don’t explicitly prohibit it but rather reference the federal schedules

              1. True. My money is still on it getting more D votes than R votes in congress, though. It would be great if it passed and would be a very significant reform.

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    4. I continue to be astonished by people’s ability to take an article that has nothing to do with Trump and doesn’t mention Trump and discusses an issue over which Trump has no power, and STILL manage to make it about Trump. It’s fucking exhausting.

      I’m no Trump supporter, but I’m starting to think the next version of the DSM will need to contain a description of Trump Derangement Syndrome.

  2. Biden learned all about the evils of marijuana from Reefer Madness, which he saw at the picture show when it first came out.

  3. Unfortunately, a ‘perfect storm’ of groups will oppose legalization:
    Social conservatives, who think getting high is wrong,
    Law Enforcement agencies, from the DEA on down which fear job losses and, liberal ‘nanny staters’ who fear its health effects.

    Should the marijuana industry in this nation become robust, it would be the target of state lawsuits a la big tobacco.

    1. They legalized recreational weed in my state. So I went to a store to check it out. Prices were stupid high (no pun intended). Turns out the guy had to pay thirty grand for the license to open the store, pays a ten and a half percent tax on everything he sells, and his cost is what customers with a medical marijuana card pay at the store next door. I don’t think he’ll be able to stay in business for very long.

      1. And he doesn’t get to claim any business expenses as deductions on his taxes, which just drives his costs that much higher (of course its the same for the medical place next door)

        1. And can’t even have a bank account.

      2. Yeah, if they make it impossible to compete with the back market, what the fuck is the point?
        From what I can see, prices at stores in Mass. are around twice what you would pay in NH where it’s all illegal.

        1. The prices at the medical marijuana places are almost reasonable. I’ve got a friend with a friend with a card, so I’ll just keep doing that.

          1. As the rec markets age in each state they tend to stabilize with prices that are competitive (not cheaper, but better quality and safety, and price is close enough) with the black market. See the entire west coast and Colorado as examples. Even with very different tax structures and amounts, retail pricing is pretty stable from state to state.

    2. The primary bipartisan argument against re-scheduling and legalizing marijuana is “muh treaties”.

      1. The treaties don’t stand in the way of rescheduling, only descheduling. Schedule 5 would mean you could buy it at a pharmacy without a prescription, signing for it, as long as it’s for medical use. Like Sudafed. Only thing is, then it’d conflict with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and probably state pharmacy law; so what else is new, it probably does already.

  4. (D) hates you and your weed Sullum.

    1. Not as much as (R).

      1. It’s funny when Lying Jeffy lies about not being a lefty, then continues to defend democrats and attack republicans on every issue being discussed.

  5. Goddamn it would be hilarious if Trump signed it.

  6. “the bill would impose a 5 percent federal tax on cannabis products,”

    And there you have it.

    1. build back better

      1. back better bud

    2. Oh stop whining. Taxes are the price we pay for the government turning more of a blind eye to the negative outcomes of drug/alcohol/cigarette use than it otherwise would. It’s a good deal and you should take it.

      1. Taxes are the price we pay for private property and courts where people can resolve disputes without violence. Prohibition does not provide that for those involved, and the result is Chicago.

      2. “Oh stop whining. Taxes are the price we pay for the government turning more of a blind eye to the negative outcomes of drug/alcohol/cigarette use than it otherwise would.”

        What a bunch of horse shit. I would take your statement more seriously if the Federal Government didn’t prove you wrong on almost a daily basis with the billions of tax payer dollars they waste.

        “It’s a good deal and you should take it.”

        It wouldn’t matter if it was a good deal or not. The negotiations are between Crony Capitalists, Nanny-Statists, and “situational” Drug Warriors/”Reformers.” All we can hope for is that the “lesser evil” of passing this bill doesn’t screw the communities the politicians claim they’re trying to help and that the money ACTUALLY does make it the victims of the Drug War.

  7. What about the
    WeEliminateExtraneousDispensaries or WEED Act
    DaringOpenlyProgressiveEnjoyment or DOPE Act
    RelaxingEveryExtraFederalElementRecognized or REEFER Act

    1. Puke On Liberty In The Interest of Cronies Against Liberty

  8. if they put it on his desk, i am sure he would sign it….. 5% tax probably kills any chance of getting more bipartisan support though.

  9. It’s about fucking time.

  10. Why do people keep ascribing Biden’s opposition to marijuana legalization to some kind of personal belief? — Biden knows as well as anyone that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol. He probably has friends and family that smoke marijuana.

    The reason Biden is opposed is that he is a right-wing, corrupt corporate Democrat. Like the rest, they don’t serve the people. They serve their rich corporate donors.

    Science and widespread experience have shown marijuana has no significant harms. Those who shout about serious harms are lying. Polls show 68 percent of all Americans want to end the monstrously destructive, insane war on marijuana consumers. – 75 percent say leave it up to the states. More than 90 percent approve of medical marijuana. Now, even a majority of Republicans want to end this sick, witch hunt. – So why do we still have it?

    Because police and prosecutors build their careers and empires on the fraudulent marijuana prohibition. Because industries like alcohol and pharmaceuticals don’t want the competition. Because other interests like the bogus “treatment” quacks, the drug testing industry and the prison industries depend on it for their life’s blood. Because many banks and shaky corporations couldn’t exist without the laundered money.

    1. I think if it gets past the senate, Biden would pass it. But yes, look elsewhere for leadership on this topic.

      1. Of course. If it got past the senate, Biden would be all alone in his last century position. His real support is ambivalent enough. Everyone I know only voted for Biden to get rid of Trump. We really wanted Bernie Sanders, but were cheated in the primary again.

        If Biden makes himself an obstacle on this, he won’t get a second term, and he won’t have an easy first term.

  11. The joke is that with all the taxation and regulation, there will still be a very healthy black market for cannabis. The interdiction rate is less than 5% so the “overhead” is very tolerable. Besides, most of the weed comes in via rail cars and shipping containers. Some American companies manufacturing in Mexico have been compromised by the cartels (it only takes a few people) and readily pack contraband in their shipments to the US. Many US companies shipping from Mexico get a “good guy” rating by customs and so almost never have their shipments inspected. Packing rocker panel of cars makes for good television, but most of the tonnage comes in serious bulk.

    1. There are several layers of middleman costs in the black market though. I definitely do not pay more for the legal stuff than I used to for the illicit stuff.

      1. Well then you’re a failure at this too.

    2. Most of the problem comes from the greedy sellers trying to base their outrageous prices on the old black-market prices. But that won’t fly. Black-market dealers charge high because of the prohibition premium – the amount which compensates the seller for the risk of going to jail. – Legal vendors must discount that premium.

      After the dust settles on re-legalization, average quality marijuana will sell for $25 to $40 an ounce. And it will be sold wherever more harmful beer and wine are available. It’s just a plant.

      Then there will be no room for a black-market to operate.

  12. Had Trump removed weed as a Schedule 1 drug (as I’ve been advocating for 4 years), he would have won the election by such a huge landslide that Democrats couldn’t have stolen the election.

    1. But nooo, he had to appoint Joykiller Jeff as AG, which set that particular movement back a few years until he got shitcanned. And I guess he couldn’t get a compromise going with Mitch the Bitch, whose ass has been cushioned well by all the pro-MJ bills that passed the House (only after Pete Sessions was sent packing).

      Either that or I guess this was another hollow promise from Trump. Especially since he could’ve rescheduled MJ with a stroke of his pen.

  13. Ol’ Jake Sullum thought the Kenyan Kommunist was gonna free teh weed too.

  14. Democrats could do worse than to associate themselves with the legalization movement considering how apparently popular it is. I don’t know why they don’t do simple politics more often. They seem to have this constant fear of people liking them.

    1. Because most Democratic politicians are corporate Democrats. They don’t serve the people. They serve their rich, corporate donors, just as the Republicans do.

      The only politicians who are honest and actually represent the people are the true Progressives, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

      1. Supporters of Cannabis Legalization should thank the Democratic Party for waiting so long to get on board with legalization. Its because they avoided supporting it or even opposed legalization that most voters haven’t seen this as a Leftwing/Democratic issue. Its partly why a lot of conservatives in MT, SD, and AZ voted to legalize it. The fact that it was a Republican Senator (Cory Gardner) who helped lead the fight against Jeff Sessions (and that Session didn’t last long) and that Trump did nothing to oppose legalization at the state level also helped.

        1. I appreciate all support for ending the monstrous, fraudulently enacted war on millions of good Americans. – But I could never go so far as to say putting off that support is somehow a good idea. I have been persecuted for more than 50 years for being a marijuana consumer. The insane persecution should have been ended in the seventies, when President Jimmy Carter supported legalization.

    2. But, knowing Democrats, they’ll have to wrap any legalization in layers of bureaucracy and regulation, and add taxes and fees.

  15. There are several layers of middleman prices in the black market though. I absolutely do not pay greater for the criminal stuff than I used to for the illicit stuff.

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