The MORE Act, which would legalize cannabis nationwide, passed the House of Representatives, marking the first time a federal body has voted to end prohibition. But its future in the Senate is uncertain.
Last week the United States House of Representative passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. The bill would remove cannabis from the list of drugs regulated by the Controlled Substances Act, eliminate criminal penalties for federal cannabis offenses and expunge past federal cannabis convictions. The bill now advances to the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to break a potential filibuster.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a staunch advocate for cannabis reform and co-founding member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, says the bill’s passage was a “milestone” despite previous efforts and the bill’s uncertain future.
Blumenauer says federal legalization would help smaller Oregon dispensaries compete with larger cannabis corporations and access the national banking system, making them lower-value targets for criminals.
Earl Blumenauer discusses cannabis equity with Oregon Business in February of 2020. Photo: Jason Kaplan
Despite potential Senate headwinds, Blumenauer is optimistic about next steps.
“Last time around the legislation went to a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell and it died. This time we have Senate leadership actually supporting legalization and I find that encouraging,” Blumenauer told Oregon Business.
“The [Senate] has seen what we’ve done. It’s a pretty comprehensive bill with some bipartisan support. It had broad interest from advocates and industry. We will work with them as they see fit but we’ve given them a roadmap.” Blumenauer adds. “We’ve also given them legislation that would solve the banking problem. So the next step is theirs.”
Blumenauer also pointed out that the SAFE Banking Act is also up for consideration by the Democratically controlled House of Representatives. This bill, which would allow legal cannabis businesses access to the national banking system, has been advanced six times by the House of Representatives as either an amendment or as a stand-alone piece of legislation. Most recently, the House added the act as an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act, but that provision was removed by the Senate.
Since legalization, cannabis dispensaries have become a frequent target of sometimes-lethal armed robberies because lack of access to banking requires them to maintain large quantities of cash on hand. According to the United States Treasury Department, only about 10% of banks and 4% of credit unions provide services to legal and licensed cannabis businesses.
While the SAFE Banking Act seems to have widespread support, the MORE act is unlikely to pass the Senate unaltered. Two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), have expressed resistance to federal cannabis legalization. President Biden has also not voiced his support for federal cannabis legalization.
Among the most vocal opponents of the bill was Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-OR), whose district includes much of Eastern and Southern Oregon.
Bentz said during the hearing that the MORE Act was “bad and incomplete” as it failed to support police efforts to shut down illicit marijuana growing operations.
“Cartels are stealing water and using it to grow marijuana,” Bentz said in the hearing. “Water regulators in southern Oregon have been threatened with death by cartel members when they try to stop water theft. This is why it is essential any bill dealing with [marijuana] legalization include sign money for law enforcement,” he added, referring to signing bonuses for new members of law enforcement.
According to data collected last year by the Police Police Executive Research Forum, police departments nationwide were experiencing a 44% increase in retirements, 18% increase in resignations, and were only able to fill 93% of authorized positions.
In February, The Oregonian/Oregonlive reported that the Portland Police Bureau has fewer sworn officers than at any point in the last 30 years.
Blumenaur said that while Betnz was “absolutely right” about the illicit market and cannabis-related crime, he said his colleague was “out of step” with Oregon voters on cannabis.
“These problems are the result of not having a solid policy form the federal government. We wouldn’t have this problem if we had a federal government to help us get rid of the black market and have bank protections,” says Blumenauer, who added federal cannabis prohibition put small Oregon businesses at a disadvantage.
“The great big companies can afford the extra charge on security. But if you’re a small minority-owned enterprise it starves your ability to thrive,” Blumenauer says.
Bentz could not be reached for comment.
To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here.