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Reps. Angie Craig and Ilhan Omar sign on to effort to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level

A previous version of the bill passed the House overwhelmingly last year but died in the Senate. This year’s version contains stronger social justice measures that address the generational effects of pot criminalization.

If passed, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act would be following the lead of 27 states and the District of Columbia that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.
Photo by Wesley Gibbs on Unsplash

Minnesota Reps. Angie Craig and Ilhan Omar have become cosponsors on a bill that would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, striking marijuana from the list of controlled substances and investing in communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021, also known as the MORE Act, would also eliminate federal criminal penalties, clear criminal records and create social equity programs focused on repairing damage to individuals and communities impacted by decades of criminalization.

Rep. Angie Craig
Rep. Angie Craig
“For decades, the United States has wasted hundreds of billions of dollars enforcing antiquated drug laws that do not make our communities any safer or more secure – while targeting communities of color in a particularly unjust and prejudiced manner,” Craig said in a statement.

If passed, the bill would be following the lead of 27 states and the District of Columbia that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. Eighteen states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use. Minnesota is not one of those states, and lists the drug as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Possession or sale of more than 42.5 grams of marijuana is a felony under Minnesota law.

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Democrats in Minnesota’s House of Representatives made history in May when a bill to legalize recreational marijuana reached the House floor for the first time, and the bill passed 72-61. But the bill died in the Republican-led Senate.

If the MORE Act passes at the federal level, though, state-level punishments may still be in effect if the drug is not fully legalized. Even so, some Democratic lawmakers view the bill as an essential step toward not only recreational freedom, but also restorative justice.

What the law would do

The MORE Act passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives last year, but failed to advance in the Senate, where a companion bill also died. A second Senate bill is expected to be introduced later this year with the backing of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar
When the previous iteration of the bill passed, Rep. Ilhan Omar called it a “long overdue step to provide restorative justice to those devastated by the war on drugs. … Tragically, for far too long cannabis criminalization has disproportionately impacted communities of color and ruined countless lives.”

This year, the revised bill contains stronger social justice measures that address the generational effects of pot criminalization.

Decriminalization is a step short of full legalization. Instead, the MORE Act eliminates existing criminal sanctions — marijuana would remain illegal, but the federal criminal justice system would not prosecute anyone for possession of the drug under the specified amount. Even with decriminalization, state criminal justice authorities could still impose civil fines, such as driving while under the influence or using the drug in a public setting.

Under the scheduling system, the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it’s perceived to have no medical value and a high potential for abuse. That puts marijuana on the same level as heroin and ecstasy.

The first step that would be taken federally if the bill were to become law is removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, which would apply retroactively to prior and pending convictions. The bill would also require federal courts to expunge prior convictions, allow prior offenders to request expungement, and require courts to conduct re-sentencing hearings for those still under supervision.

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While recreational use of marijuana is still illegal in Minnesota, medical use was legalized in 2014, when Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law a bill legalizing the drug for the treatment of nine severe medical conditions.

“Minnesota’s Medical Cannabis Program is already legal,” said Scott Smith, public information officer for the Minnesota Department of Health. “Any changes at the federal level would not have a significant impact on our program.” Minnesota’s Medical Cannabis Program was created soon after medical marijuana was legalized in 2014.

In states that have already decriminalized or legalized marijuana, the drug’s criminal classification at the federal level has had ramifications for marijuana policy — many state-legal marijuana businesses have to function as cash-only enterprises because banks are nervous about dealing with businesses that are breaking federal law.

This “lemonade stand” effect also makes it impossible for businesses to file for some tax deductions. Decriminalizing federally would make it easier for those businesses to work with banks, and a marijuana tax could raise millions of dollars in state revenue.

Impacts of drug policy

States that have legalized marijuana have seen a burgeoning market for the drug — in 2020, legal cannabis sales totaled $20 billion and are projected to more than double by 2025, according to the bill. In order to address a growing market for the drug, the bill would also open up Small Business Administration funding for cannabis-related businesses and authorize the assessment of a 5% sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products to create an “Opportunity Trust Fund,” which would support grant programs to “reverse the harmful impact of the War on Drugs.”

A 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that in every state, Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession, even when Black and white people used the drug at relatively similar rates. Black men receive drug sentences that are 13.1% longer than sentences imposed for white men, and Latinos are nearly 6.5 times more likely to receive a federal sentence for cannabis possession than non-Hispanic white people, according to the bill.

Fewer than one-fifth of cannabis business owners currently identify as minorities, but authors of the MORE Act hope to address those racial disparities by providing small business loans and technical assistance to socially and economically disadvantaged groups.

“The MORE Act is an important first step in legalizing recreational marijuana in ways that make sense for our local communities while allowing legitimate businesses to contribute to our economy and tax base,” Craig said. “I’m proud to once again cosponsor this long overdue legislation and look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to have it signed into law.”