Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Barbara Lee warn moderate Democrats against delaying marijuana reform bill
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Progressive House Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Barbara Lee, warned their more moderate congressional colleagues Wednesday against delaying a vote on a marijuana reform bill that enjoys growing bipartisan support.


The House is expected to vote by the end of this month on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, under which cannabis would be removed from the federal Controlled Substances Act. This would allow individual states to determine their own marijuana laws.

The bill was introduced last year by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the majority whip, said last month that the measure will "help restore justice to millions by decriminalizing marijuana and expunging records of nonviolent federal cannabis convictions."

The MORE Act has gained some bipartisan support ahead of its anticipated vote. At least three Republicans say they will vote for it, including Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who told Alaska Public Radio last week that "it's a big vote, and we're going to pass it."

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However, as Politico reports, the bill's momentum has stalled in recent days, as some Democrats have been spooked by their Republican colleagues' use of the bill as a weapon of leverage in the struggle for a coronavirus deal.

On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of prioritizing marijuana legalization over Covid-19 relief, and the charge—as misleading as it may be—has had a chilling effect on some Democratic proponents of the MORE Act.

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Some moderate Democrats in close races or in more conservative districts are increasingly worried about appearing too progressive on issues of crime and punishment, according to Politico. They are already weathering accusations they are too soft on crime and that they want to defund police—even if the modest police reform bill they support does no such thing.

Instead of embracing the popular MORE Act, the talk on Capitol Hill is now of punting the bill until after the November 3 election.

"I'd like to get it done," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday of the bill, but adding that lawmakers needed to focus on coronavirus aid right now. "Other bills are not timely," he said.

Some progressive lawmakers and cannabis advocates say postponing a MORE Act vote would be a big mistake.

"If you're trying to punt it as a result of a political calculation, I disagree with that calculation," said Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of the bill. "This is an enormously popular policy—not just for our base, but it's also very popular amongst certain parts of registered Republican voters and independent voters."

"I think this is a win-win-win policy, and I think that we should be doing this before the election," she asserted.

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Lee (D-Calif.), another MORE Act co-sponsor, agreed, arguing that the bill "should be seen as a prime opportunity to address a form of systemic racism." Lee cited the bill's increasing popularity, noting that its number of co-sponsors has jumped from 87 to 111 in the past two weeks.

Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in an email to Common Dreams that moderate Democrats are "falling prey" to anti-legalization conservatives.

Perez said Republicans are trying "to undermine justice for the millions of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income individuals disproportionately impacted by our country's racist marijuana laws."

"We cannot force these communities to wait until the moment when it is 'politically convenient,' while they continue to be robbed of employment opportunities, housing, education, other government programs, and even their children or immigration status," she stressed.

Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) concurred, saying that "passage of the MORE Act is essential in order to truly right the wrongs of federal marijuana criminalization, and to once and for all allow the majority of states that have legalized cannabis for either medical or adult-use to embrace these policies free from the threat of undue federal prosecution or interference."

Not only does the MORE Act enjoy widespead congressional support, it is also backed by a wide range of criminal justice reform, civil and human rights, public health, and even some law enforcement groups.

This mirrors growing public support for marijuana legalization; according to November 2019 Pew Research polling, fully two-thirds of Americans favor legalization, with a majority of both self-identified Democrats (78%) and Republicans (55%) in support.

Marijuana is currently fully legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia, while an additional 22 states allow legal use of medical cannabis. Five states—Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota—will vote this November on whether to legalize either recreational or medical marijuana.