Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have delayed a vote on a marijuana decriminalization bill that was scheduled for next week, bowing to pressure from moderates in the party who want lawmakers to focus first on COVID-19 pandemic relief efforts. A vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act will instead occur later this year, according to party leadership.

“Right now, the House is focused relentlessly on securing agreement to stave off a damaging government shutdown and continuing to do its job addressing the COVID-19 pandemic,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said in a statement. “Later this autumn, the House will pass the MORE Act with strong support as yet another crucial step toward making our justice system fair for all Americans.”

If passed, the bill would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and allow the states to set their own cannabis regulation policies. The bill would also expunge convictions for many federal marijuana-related offenses and levy a 5% commercial cannabis tax which would be invested in communities that have borne the brunt of the harm caused by the failed War on Drugs.

“The MORE Act remains a critical component of House Democrats’ plan for addressing systemic racism and advancing criminal justice reform,” Hoyer added.

Besides coming to an agreement on a new pandemic relief bill, Congress is also working on a bill to keep the federal government funded and avoid a shutdown. Both the House and Senate are scheduled to recess in early October, which would push the vote on the MORE Act to the lame-duck session following the November election, according to Democrats Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and California Rep. Barbara Lee, co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

“The leadership has now given an ironclad commitment that the House will consider the bill this fall,” they said.

Reaction To Delay Comes Swiftly

Cannabis reform activists, industry representatives, and lawmakers were quick to react to the postponement of the vote on the MORE Act. Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement that the delay will result in “justice delayed for millions of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income individuals disproportionately impacted by our country’s racist marijuana laws. We cannot continue to force these communities to wait for a ‘politically convenient’ moment while they continue to be robbed of employment opportunities, housing, education, other government programs, and even their children or immigration status.”

Avis Bulbulyan, the CEO of cannabis consultant firm SIVA Enterprises, also expressed disappointment at the delay in an email to High Times.

“This would have been more of a vote on social justice grounds than business and if they can’t do the right thing on a social justice issue at a time when social justice issues are front and center, what purpose are they serving in their roles in the house? This is a complete abdication of responsibilities at the highest levels of public office and it’s a shame,” Bulbulyan said. “This should be a wake-up moment for citizens on the significance of their vote for those they’re voting for.”

Cannabis industry investment company CEO Joe Crouthers of Ceres Group Holdings said that while the MORE Act could arguably be considered the greatest attempt at cannabis reform to date, the result is likely to be more symbolic than transformative.

“The likelihood that this legislation ultimately passes the Senate and Executive Branch, regardless of the upcoming election, is quite slim. Neither party has truly championed cannabis reform as a key tenet of its 2020 platform,” he said. “Also, while there are many components of this bill worth celebrating, its shortcomings and potential unintended consequences should not be ignored—adding another 5% excise tax on the industry, if not offset at the state level, is likely to manifest itself in a push to the illicit market.”

Progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rejected the argument that lawmakers should focus on the pandemic, noting that the House passed a $3.2 trillion relief package in May that the Senate has failed to act on.

“I feel like the impulse to delay the expungement of people’s records is a fear-based response to Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party,” she said, referring to the Senate majority leader. “And I personally don’t think that we should be governing that way,” adding that Democrats should be “unapologetic” about their agenda.

“Why is it that the one racial justice bill is the one that is being singled out for postponement?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I think that’s wrong.”

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