The last months of 2020 presented many unresolved questions for the next phase of U.S. drug policy reform. Oregon’s Measures 109 and 110 – which decriminalized possession of illegal drugs under state law and legalized psilocybin therapy in the state – stole the spotlight on election night in November.
In a historic vote a few weeks later, the The House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, decriminalizing cannabis under federal law. This legislation comes after years of advocacy, negotiation, and coalition building from drug policy, human and civil rights organizations around the country, including the ACLU, Immigrant Law Resource Center, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, among others.
This year, the next iteration of the MORE Act is expected to be reintroduced to Congress. The Act must again receive approval in the House as well as the Senate, which supporters expect will happen in the first half of 2021. Regardless of the outcome of this bill, it sets a precedent for more progressive drug policy in the future. The MORE Act is one of the few drug policy reform bills written under the frame of economic and racial justice.
Originally born from the Marijuana Justice Act of 2019, the MORE Act stands to change the political and economic landscape in the U.S. for the better by putting an end to federal marijuana prohibition and setting the precedent for future progressive drug policy reform that could impact the legality of psychedelics. As the MORE Act was not approved by both chambers of the past 116th session of Congress, it now needs to be reintroduced and approved again by the House and Senate. This means that President Joe Biden has a chance of signing the bill, profoundly changing how the federal government looks at cannabis and the people who use it.
The MORE Act offers an array of economic initiatives that stand to boost the economy and make the cannabis industry more inclusive. Along with federal decriminalization, the MORE Act would open financial services up to the cannabis industry. Right now, when a person shops a cannabis dispensary, they cannot ring up their purchase with a credit or debit card. Banks and credit card networks are not allowed to accept deposits or give loans to cannabis businesses because of federal prohibition. If the MORE Act passes, banks and cannabis businesses would work together to create more jobs and expand the industry.
According to Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, the MORE Act would not only end marijuana prohibition, but also begin to dismantle the burden of drug-related prison sentences on both people and public resources. Adesuyi says the legislation would “generate $14 billion in revenue, reduces federal prison spending by $1billion, and reduces 73,000 person-years of life spent in prison.”
The MORE Act would also expand the use of medical cannabis. Right now, military veterans cannot legally use medical cannabis through VA health systems even in states where it is legal because the Department of Veteran Affairs prohibits the use of federally illegal substances. For veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, access to medical marijuana would mean having an opportunity to manage their PTSD or chronic pain more effectively. The VA reported in their 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual report that nearly 20 veterans take their lives every day, which suggests that there’s room for improving treatment options. Marijuana can provide relief for people with depression, anxiety, and trauma from war, so why not extend that relief to our veterans?
Additionally, the MORE Act protects people who use cannabis against the loss of public benefits like housing and food assistance, which can be triggered by an arrest. In many states, people stand to lose housing based on the mere suspicion of using cannabis. Food stamp recipients are often forced to pass a drug test in order to receive benefits, despite these tests being ineffective and invasive.
Some of the most important changes that the MORE Act would usher in are related to immigration and expungement. Under the MORE Act, a marijuana-related arrest or conviction would no longer be a deportable offense or a reason to deny citizenship. Since 2007, U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deported 250,000 people for drug offenses. Marijuana is one of the most common reasons for non-citizen deportation.
According to a report written by Grace Meng, Associate Director of Human Rights Watch, entitled, A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations, “in 2013, immigrants with a drug conviction as their most serious conviction were only outnumbered by those with convictions for immigration offenses.”
Over the years, ICE has expanded its power and its budget. In 2020, ICE deported more than 185,000 people, a 30% decrease from 2019. Deportations destroy families and communities and sometimes put deportees in grave danger. If people in a community know you’re a deportee, you can become a target for robberies or be vulnerable in other ways. Deportees also often don’t have the resources to make a living when they first arrive in a new country. ICE has proven to be an institution that disproportionately deports Black and Latinx immigrants, targeting non-citizens and their families.
The MORE Act proposes the creation of a resentencing and expungement process for those with marijuana convictions. In 2018 alone, over 600,000 people were arrested for a cannabis offense. There are hoards of people in the U.S. that have been impacted by fifty years of federal cannabis prohibition. To address this historic injustice, the MORE Act includes initiatives for states to encourage folks with marijuana convictions to work in the legal cannabis industry. One of the provisions included in the Act is a tax-supported grant program for individual businesses, community reinvestment, and a licensing program.
The MORE Act’s victory in the House of Representatives last year has significant implications for future policies around other substances, such as psychedelics. The passing of psychedelics-related state and local initiatives in 2019 and 2020 proved that the general public is increasingly comfortable decriminalizing psychedelics on the municipal and state level. Oakland and Denver became the first cities to pass ordinances to decriminalize psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms.
But DPA’s Adesuyi notes that decriminalizing psychedelics will not end the war on drugs. “It’s about the larger sight. It’s a problem when you legalize substances based on their proximity to their medical use or what’s palatable. It leaves people behind and it doesn’t address serious issues like an overdose,” she says. “There is much more harm reduction to do around drug prohibition than [allowing] more access to psychedelics. Indigenous groups haven’t given permission to these campaigns to include their sacred medicines.”
In the public view, psychedelics aren’t that different from marijuana in terms of the stigma and the experience of the substances. Other classes of drugs such as stimulants or opiates carry a much greater stigma, even among cannabis and psychedelic users. In order to move forward with decriminalizing other classes of drugs, more needs to be done to create models around regulation and safe supply. There’s also cultural work to be undertaken to educate people about these substances.
Adesuyi, who has worked on the bill since its inception, observes that there has been a large shift in how people talk about marijuana legalization. “The conversation is no longer, should we legalize, but more how should we do it? What’s the best way to regulate marijuana equity and justice?” says Adesuyi.
According to Adesuyi, drug policy reform continues to have strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. She notes that the MORE Act was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and says the legislation also has the support of Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) who is a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. Adesuyi adds that the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, Kamala Harris, is now Vice President. “Biden is not where we want him to be on marijuana reform,” says Adesuyi. “The hope is that Vice President Harris won’t leave the communities that she’s worked with behind.”
Ending marijuana prohibition is a vital part of halting the war on drugs, but the fight doesn’t end there. The drug war has brainwashed us into thinking that drugs like heroin are the most dangerous factor, when in fact, the vast majority of people who use drugs aren’t struggling with addiction and our punitive drug policies put us in the greatest peril. Crack won’t throw me in jail. Heroin can’t put me in an illegal chokehold on camera, for all of the world to see, with no accountability. Cannabis can’t deport non-citizens and separate families.
Image: Nicki Adams using adapted photo by Martin Falbisoner