House passes MORE Act, but is it destined to fail?

The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved the MORE Act, a bill that would legalize cannabis by removing it from the federal list of prohibited drugs. Critics say there’s too much opposition from GOP lawmakers for it to pass in the Senate.

During a press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked if President Joe Biden supports the legislation, which was authored by Democrats and has become a flagship bill for the party. “As the president said during the campaign, our current marijuana laws are not working. He agrees that we need to rethink our approach including to address the racial disparities and systemic inequities in our criminal justice system, broaden research on the effects of marijuana and support the safe use of marijuana for medical purposes. We look forward to working with Congress to achieve our shared goals.” The White House’s unwillingness to say whether it stands behind the bill says something about its chances for success.

On April 1, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act passed with a vote of 220 to 204. The vote went along party lines for the most part. Two Democrats voted against the bill and three Republicans voted in favor.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently told reporters at a briefing that he’s reaching out to Republicans to try and find a way to come together and get the bill passed. But even pro-cannabis Republicans say they’re unhappy with the legislation.

GOP Complaints

If one thing has become clear in the last five years, it’s that support for cannabis legalization is no longer a partisan stance. The majority of voters on both sides of the fence have polled in favor of legalization time and time again, and many Conservative populist thought leaders have voiced support for ending prohibition under the banners of states’ rights and personal autonomy. So why did the great majority of Republican lawmakers vote against the MORE Act?

Notably, the head of the GOP Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH)—a high-profile Republican who is in favor of legalization—voted against the bill for a number of reasons that he clarified in a recent op-ed for Marijuana Moment. “As one of the lone Republicans on this issue,” he wrote, “I recognize that bipartisanship is the only foundation upon which Congress can build the consensus necessary to enact impactful cannabis reform. For these reasons, I cannot support the MORE Act.”

Joyce points out that a number of provisions in the MORE Act run contrary to Republican sentiment even while the main thrust of the bill—the descheduling of cannabis from the list of federally banned substances—was supported by many.

The representative’s first complaint is that the bill fails to set up any regulatory framework from which states can develop their own policies, “leaving individual states to sort out issues typically reserved for federal agencies in the interim.” Joyce has introduced his own legalization bill which would have federal agencies and states regulate cannabis in much the same way that alcohol is treated. It would allow the drug to be transported across state lines where it’s legal and would make the Food and Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau responsible for creating cannabis regulations.

Joyce also says he’s concerned that leaving national age restrictions for cannabis consumption out of the bill will leave the nation’s youth in danger of being exposed to the drug. “I cannot vote for bills that jeopardize that reality and disregard the need for federal safety and production regulations that ensure cannabis is suitable for consumption,” he wrote.

On a superficial level, these criticisms appear to line up with traditional right wing sentiments regarding cannabis as a dangerous drug, albeit with the rational approach of regulation rather than prohibition. But it’s interesting to note that Joyce is calling for more federal intervention and increased regulations—stances that are championed by the Left in other circumstances.

Joyce does raise a very grave concern about the bill that has been echoed by advocates from every corner of the political sphere. He asks, “Why doesn’t the bill prioritize state and local-level expungements?” According to the lawmaker, the MORE Act would only expunge an estimated 250 to 2,500 individuals. Joyce says that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 14 million Americans who have been arrested in the last 20 years for violating local cannabis laws.

Some Republicans and independents have also criticized the MORE Act’s inclusion of a steep excise tax on cannabis sales, noting that the industry is already heavily taxed by state governments and that an additional tax would come as a serious burden for consumers.

Performative Flex?

One concern that has been voiced by many critics of the MORE Act found along the spectrum of political alignments is that the bill is merely a message bill, meant to do little in the way of actual policy reform while signaling to other policymakers that legislative leaders are looking to steer the ship toward a new goal.

Message bills are arguably important. While the regular introduction of universal healthcare bills or attempts to repeal the federal income tax are generally written with the expectation of failure, they keep the topic alive in the press and encourage supporters to rally.

But cannabis legalization advocates are clearly sick and tired of this flirtation with legalization that has been ongoing for decades, and they want reform now. At this point, passing a performative bill that only pretends to improve the current state of cannabis prohibition without actually delivering any substantial change will only serve to alienate and anger an already impatient constituency.