Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives made history with the passing of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. The bill removes cannabis from the DEA’s Controlled Substances Act schedule, effectively decriminalizing it nationally and allowing individual states to regulate their own markets. It also calls for the reinvestment of tax money from cannabis into community grants for job training, youth recreation and other programs in areas hit hardest by prohibition.
And while the passing of the bill was lauded by many cannabis advocates and executives, others feel it doesn’t go far enough in creating a fair industry for everyone. Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary spoke to leadership figures in the cannabis equity movement to learn about the specific issues with the MORE Act.
Breaking Down the MORE Act’s Shortcomings
Although the bill represents a significant step in federal cannabis legislation, experts identified four specific points where its provisions fall short of establishing an industry accessible to everyone:
A late-added provision in the bill would prevent anyone with even a pending felony charge from getting a license in the cannabis industry. Cannabis equity advocates in Congress, such as Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), expressed displeasure at the last-minute addition, but stopped short of pulling the bill from a full floor vote.
Amber Littlejohn, executive director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), said the organization was able to ensure this add-on would not be present in the final version of the bill that is passed by both chambers of Congress.
“At the last moment, MCBA was able to work with House leadership to get their commitment to ensuring the exclusion would not stand and impacted communities would remain at the forefront of any future legislation,” Littlejohn wrote in an email to Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary.
Dasheeda Dawson, cannabis program supervisor for the city of Portland, Ore., agreed. “Over the past few years, the definition of cannabis equity has centered on providing opportunities to those most adversely harmed,” she said via email. “Undoubtedly this starts with those who were previously arrested or incarcerated for cannabis.”
Payments through the U.S. Department of Justice
Another problematic provision in the MORE Act involves payments made directly to the Department of Justice. Under the parameters of the bill's “Opportunity Trust Fund,” the U.S. Attorney General would use these payments to carry out a program that offers grants to local communities. Many believe this represents a missed opportunity for allocation of those funds and would prefer a more direct investment into communities.
“I would argue that our investment in law enforcement has proven to be disproportionate to the need and this is likely the best place to start shifting the spending,” said Dawson. “For example, the DEA spends millions per year on the Cannabis Eradication and Suppression program, but those millions could be used instead for creating a cannabis expungement and re-education program.”
No mandatory expungement
The “E” in “MORE” stands for one of its key provisions, the expungement of previous marijuana-related convictions. The ACLU estimates that 88% of the 8.2 million Americans who were arrested for cannabis between 2001 and 2010 were charged with possession. Arrest rates also indicate that African-Americans are arrested nearly four times as often as whites, despite similar usage rates.
And while the bill does offer an opportunity for expungement on a national level, advocates believe that isn’t enough.
“This bill only does part of the job with automatic federal expungement. It fails to include a mandate for states to do the same, which leaves the vast majority of people in limbo still struggling to clear their records,” said Dawson. “There are also a few states that will absolutely only expunge records if required by a federal mandate.”
By and large, the MORE Act leaves decisions like this to the states, essentially legitimizing much of the regulatory power structure in cannabis presently.
Even where federal and state-level expungement pathways are offered, the process can be confusing and unclear. It also varies on a state-by-state basis—the lack of a strong federal mandate for expungement means these provisions won’t have as much of an impact as they could.
Federal fees in licensing
Right now, states are managing the process for cannabis licensing and regulation. Under the MORE Act, federal licensing would be required for most of the main varieties of cannabis businesses.
Experts believe these extra layers of regulation will ultimately translate into additional fees that would shut out small businesses and help large multi-state operators with the cash to spend on acquiring licenses.
“Adding an additional layer of licensing regulation is unnecessary, especially for small, local cannabis businesses and it creates additional costs, favoring big tobacco, pharmaceutical and retail companies,” said Dawson. States like Michigan, Massachusetts and Illinois have already taken steps to help mitigate the costs of cannabis licenses.
“Coupling decriminalization with a regulatory framework that lacks an accompanying expanse of economic opportunity is like a double negative,” added Dr. Rachel Knox, an endocannabinologist who chairs the Oregon Cannabis Commission and sits on the board of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.
MORE Act’s Murky Future
Problems with the bill may lead to disagreements within the cannabis industry—but under current Republican leadership, it’s not likely to receive a hearing in the U.S. Senate, meaning it will remain in limbo well into the new year. Georgia’s January runoffs will determine control of the Senate, which will in turn determine whether or not the bill has any chance of a hearing in the next session of the upper chamber.
Whatever the future holds, the passing of the MORE Act and the election of a Democratic administration makes it clear that cannabis is set to take a much larger role in the next legislative session. Advocates have promised to continue fighting to ensure the forming industry is accessible to everyone, especially those harmed most by prohibition.
“Despite its issues, the MORE Act sent a clear message to lawmakers and the cannabis industry that equity will be a cornerstone of federal cannabis policy,” Littlejohn said.