House Committee Moves Closer to Decriminalizing Marijuana and Creating Cannabis Business Opportunities - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise magazine Fall 2019 issue

The House Judiciary Committee Wednesday took a step closer to legalizing marijuana on a national level with the passage of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, considered to be sweeping reform legislation.

The new law has special meaning for people of color due to a historical pattern of racial disparities in arrests and sentencing for marijuana possession. For example, a recent USA Today article reported that the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks were six times more likely than whites to get arrested for possession, and a US Sentencing Commission study revealed 84% of 2,000 marijuana offenders were sentenced versus only 11% of whites. Moreover, it would make available to African American entrepreneurs much-needed resources to develop cannabis-related businesses.

“I have long believed that the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake, and the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws has only compounded this mistake,” asserted Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chairman of the committee that approved the law with a 24-10 vote. “While states have led the way in reform, our federal laws have not kept pace with the obvious need for change. With the passage of the MORE Act today, the Judiciary Committee has taken long-overdue steps to address the devastating injustices caused by the War on Drugs and to finally decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.”

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a presidential candidate who sponsored the legislation in the upper chamber of Congress in July, released a statement applauding the House’s action. “As more states legalize marijuana, millions of Americans with marijuana-related convictions continue to face overwhelming barriers to jobs, education, and housing. That is why we must act to remove the burden of marijuana convictions and make sure these individuals have the support needed to move forward. It is also critical that everyone — especially people of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs — has a real opportunity to participate in this growing industry,” she said. “This is a matter of racial and economic justice. I am grateful for Chairman Nadler’s partnership on this issue and for his leadership in moving this legislation forward.”

The legalization of marijuana continues to be such a hot button issue that it was included in last night’s Democratic debate. When discussing the need for the candidates to embrace the concerns of black voters, for instance, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker gained uproarious applause when he challenged former Vice President Joe Biden on his stance. Booker said he believed Biden “might have been high” when he heard of his opposition to legalizing marijuana due to high African American incarceration rates.

Law Expected To Open Doors For More Cannabis Companies

The MORE Act, which has also gained strong support from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights groups, is expected to easily pass in the Democratic-controlled House but will face stiff opposition in the GOP-dominated Senate. There’s expected to be legions of supporters for the passage of the federal act though. According to CNBC, the committee has approved the legislation at a time when 11 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational use while 33 states and the District of Columbia allow for medical marijuana being prescribed by doctors.

As a result of these recent developments, lucrative cannabis-based businesses have sprouted throughout the nation. Such companies, however, have been hampered by the inability to gain bank accounts and financing due to the illegality of marijuana at the national level. Evidence that it will be a tough battle to get the act through the Senate, despite reportedly roughly 50 members supporting the measure, is the fact that the House’s recent passage of a bill to allow legal cannabis-based businesses to gain access to banking services has been stalled by GOP senators.

The MORE Act includes the following provisions:

  • Making marijuana legal at the federal level “by removing the substance” from the Controlled Substances Act. As such, it will apply retroactively to prior and pending convictions, and enable states to set their own policy.
  • Mandating federal courts to expunge prior convictions as well as allowing offenders to request expungement. It also requires courts, on motion, to conduct re-sentencing hearings for those still under supervision.
  • Authorizing the assessment of a 5% sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products to create an Opportunity Trust Fund, which includes grant programs for job training and re-entry services, among others, to the individuals “most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs”; funds for loans to assist small businesses in the cannabis industry owned and operated by “socially and economically disadvantaged “individuals; and funding to develop programs that minimize barriers to marijuana licensing and employment.
  • Enabling legitimate cannabis-related firms and services to gain Small Business Administration financing.
  • Providing non-discrimination protections for marijuana use or possession, and for prior convictions for a marijuana offense, including denial of public housing and no adverse impact under existing immigration laws.
  • Requiring the Bureau of Labor Statistics to collect data on the demographics of the industry to ensure people of color and the economically disadvantaged are participating in the sector.

Harris believes that the MORE Act will serve to create new opportunities for individuals, including immigrants and juvenile offenders, to advance careers, education, and quality of life by correcting “the historical injustices of failed drug policies that have disproportionately impacted communities of color and low-income communities.”