Key US House panel approves marijuana legalization – again

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The U.S. House Judiciary Committee on Thursday advanced the sweeping social justice-focused marijuana legalization bill known as the MORE Act in a first step toward passage in the full House.

But the Senate remains the high hurdle.

The Judiciary Committee approved the legislation in a 26-15 vote, with 24 Democrats joined by two Republicans voting yes and 15 Republicans voting no.

The House passed a similar version of the legislation by a 228-164 vote in early December.

The Senate didn’t take up the bill, however, so the process had to be started from scratch by the new Congress, which was seated in January.

Thursday’s vote comes a week after the full House passed a defense budget bill that includes landmark legislation to make it easier for banks to serve cannabis businesses.

Yet like the MORE Act, it appears a long shot that the U.S. Senate will follow suit and approve some form of the SAFE Banking Act.

‘More than symbolic’

Morgan Fox, media relations director for the Washington DC-based National Cannabis Industry Association, said he expects the full House to pass the MORE Act again, and doing so “is definitely more than symbolic.”

“It continues the conversation about figuring out the best way to deschedule and deregulate cannabis. It increases the momentum for comprehensive marijuana reform across the board and in both chambers,” Fox said.

And, in terms of strategy, he said, it provides industry groups and lobbyists information about which lawmakers are on the fence or opposed to marijuana reform and what might be done to address their concerns.

“We’re encouraged to see that the MORE Act is once again advancing in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Matt Schweich, deputy director of the DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement.

“We cannot achieve meaningful and lasting criminal justice reform in our country without ending the war on cannabis. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have the opportunity and responsibility to come together and pass legislation to finally put an end to the decades-long failure that is federal cannabis prohibition.”

The MORE Act – formally known as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment & Expungement Act – would legalize MJ federally by removing the plant from the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Such legalization would generate new market opportunities but also likely accelerate a commoditization of marijuana that would favor low-cost production areas, which could disrupt the current patchwork of state-legal MJ markets.

Will Senate be a roadblock?

The more conservative Senate still is seen as the biggest obstacle to comprehensive marijuana reform.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is leading an effort to promote a similarly sweeping marijuana reform measure called the Cannabis Opportunity and Administration Act.

But it’s unclear if the Senate will take up that measure before next spring, and 60 out of 100 votes likely would be required for passage.

One of the main differences between the MORE Act and Schumer’s proposed bill is taxation.

MORE sets a national retail tax rate of 5% on marijuana product sales for the first two years, gradually increasing to 8%.

The draft Cannabis Opportunity and Administration Act established a nationwide marijuana excise tax of 10%, rising to 25% over five years.

Industry officials argued that the top rate in Schumer’s proposed bill not only would be onerous to operators but too high to reduce illicit operations.

Since then, Schumer’s group has collected comments on the draft, so the final version might look different.

Jeff Smith can be reached at