Congress Is Considering Decriminalizing Marijuana. What Does That Mean?

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
The House of Representatives voted on Friday to pass a historic piece of legislation to decriminalize marijuana in the U.S. — and it's quite a game-changer for current cannabis regulations. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) proposed the decriminalization of cannabis, as well as erasure of all “nonviolent” federal marijuana convictions as a means to "address the devastating injustices caused by the War on Drugs." The 228-to-164 vote to approve the measure was bipartisan, and today marks the first time that any chamber of Congress has voted on the issue of federally decriminalizing the drug. 
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If fully passed by Congress, the bill would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and enact taxes on marijuana that would help to fund programs for those who have been impacted by its criminalization. However, because it still has to go to the Senate floor — which is currently led by a Republican majority — there’s still a chance that the measure won't fully pass. But, the bill passing the House is a landmark moment, and it's laid out a blueprint of what’s possible when it comes to decriminalization of marijuana. Below, we answered some important questions you probably have about what this means for the future of cannabis in the U.S.

What will the MORE Act do if it's passed?

The MORE Act would, among other things, invest resources into communities that have been disproportionately affected by the criminalization of marijuana and the war on drugs. It would also expunge the criminal records of people charged with possession, allow veterans to get medical marijuana recommendations from doctors, and eliminate criminal penalties for people who manufacture and distribute cannabis. 

What are the current criminal laws around marijuana in the U.S.? 

Weed has been legalized in states like Colorado, Massachusetts, and more recently in Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Mississippi — which all approved measures of different forms in the November elections. Currently, there are 34 states and two territories that allow medical marijuana use. Meanwhile, 15 states, two territories, and Washington, D.C. that have legalized recreational cannabis. In many places where it’s not legal, like in New York for example, the penalties for marijuana possession can range greatly — from a fine of up to $100 all the way to 20 years in prison for 1st degree possession of a controlled substance. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), marijuana arrests have accounted for approximately 40% of drug arrests in the U.S. 
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How will the MORE Act impact anyone who has been convicted? 

While the impact will vary, if passed, a law like this decriminalizing cannabis would expunge the criminal records of many people who were jailed for possession. It would also mandate that sentencing review hearings for federal cannabis offenses must be conducted, creating potential pathways for those incarcerated for marijuana possession to be released. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that analyzed marijuana-related arrests between 2010 and 2018 found that Black people were 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possessing marijuana. The MORE Act, or a similar decriminalization bill passing both the House and Senate, would specifically have a great impact on Black people and people of color. 

What does this mean for marijuana legalization in the U.S.? 

Decriminalization is not necessarily legalization. Even if marijuana is decriminalized, possession of it can remain unlawful. Without being legalized, someone wouldn’t face criminal record or arrest for being caught with weed, but could still be fined for it. Congress would also have to pass a law that legalizes recreational and medical cannabis — or each state would have to legalize the drug individually — for penalties for marijuana possession in America to go away along with criminal convictions.

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