Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris and House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler recently announced their bill to federally decriminalize marijuana and require federal courts to expunge past low-level marijuana-related convictions.
Individuals convicted of marijuana-related crimes would be able to request an expungement of their criminal records and, if necessary, pursue re-sentencing hearings.
The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would also ensure that individuals are not denied welfare benefits nor have their immigration status affected because of prior marijuana-related convictions.
What sets the MORE Act apart from other recent federal-level marijuana reform bills like the Marijuana Justice Act and the STATES Act are its social equity provisions in the form of a sales tax and trust fund aimed at helping communities of color who have suffered most from the federal government’s War on Drugs.
“Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime,” Sen. Harris said in a statement.
“We need to start regulating marijuana, and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives. As marijuana becomes legal across the country, we must make sure everyone — especially communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs — has a real opportunity to participate in this growing industry.”
The Opportunity Trust Fund would be created from a 5 percent sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products. This revenue would be used to provide grants, loans, and other social programs to help disadvantaged individuals and communities to start marijuana businesses.
Harris and Nadler’s bill has been welcomed by notable cannabis reform advocacy groups, many of whom see it as a sign of how far the conversation surrounding marijuana has progressed from a question of if federal-level changes should take place to how to implement them.
“A strong and steadily growing majority of Americans believe it is time to end our nation’s failed experiment with cannabis prohibition,” Cannabis Trade Federation CEO Neil Levine said in a statement. “There are thousands of state-regulated cannabis businesses operating around the country, employing hundreds of thousands of workers and generating billions of dollars in tax revenue. They deserve fair treatment under the law, and that is one of the goals this legislation seeks to achieve.”
The MORE Act represents a significant departure for Sen. Harris, who voted against a bill that would have legalized and regulated recreational marijuana in California in 2010, shortly after taking office as Attorney General. Even as recently as 2014 she was dismissive of the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana in California. When asked during her campaign for re-election whether she supported her opponent’s plan to legalize marijuana in the state, she laughed and said, “He’s entitled to his opinion.”
Since 2018, however, she has been a prominent marijuana reform supporter, having put her name to Sen. Corey Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which would deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act of the federal government.
While some may see Harris’ evolution on the issue as a cold political calculation motivated by her presidential ambitions, this probably also holds true for much of the crowded field of Democratic 2020 candidates who are now near unanimous in their support of federal-level marijuana reform.
“I’ve been saying for a while that you can’t get the Democratic nomination if you are neutral or lukewarm on cannabis legalization,” said Sam Kamin, Professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and a cannabis legalization policy specialist.
“I can’t see into her soul and know whether this [change on cannabis] is sincere or political,” he said. “It’s certainly a departure from her previous views on this point, but lots of people have changed their views on this point. The Left is pretty skeptical of her, particularly her record on criminal justice. And this might be her answer to the ‘Kamala Harris is a cop’ accusation.”