WASHINGTON — For the first time ever, a chamber of Congress has passed a bill to federally decriminalize marijuana. While the move is getting criticism from some Republicans, if the bill passed Congress it could have implications for Texas marijuana laws. However, it does not mean the drug will be fully legal anytime soon.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or MORE ACT, would in part end the federal prohibition of cannabis and require federal courts to expunge nonviolent offenses. It aims to also expand business opportunities in states where cannabis is legal.
“Thousands of men and women have suffered needlessly from the federal criminalization of marijuana, particularly in communities of color and have borne the burden of collateral consequences for those ensnared in the criminal legal system that have damaged our society across generations. This is unacceptable and we must change our laws. It is time for Congress to catch up with the reforms that states are enacted,” Rep. Shiela Jackson Lee (D-TX) said.
The bill passed the House Friday largely on party lines in a 228 to 164 vote. Five Republicans voted in favor, and six democrats voted against it including Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX). In a statement, Cuellar said he made the decisions after speaking with law enforcement officers in his district who opposed the MORE Act.
“They have great concern about protecting the southern border from organized criminal organizations who transport illegal drugs into the country. Decriminalizing marijuana will increase the demand in the United States, and therefore, increasing the illegal transportation of the drug,” Cuellar said in his statement. “At this time, we should let the states decide whether or not to decriminalize marijuana until we have evidence on its effects on public health and safety.”
Those words are a common refrain longtime Texas activists have heard during previous Texas legislative sessions.
“The MORE Act is going to open doors that we haven't seen open. It is incumbent upon [state lawmakers] to make the right decision to legalize marijuana, not just for the medicinal purposes, but also for the fact that it impacts so many groups of people in a negative way,” attorney Mykal J. Fox said.
Laurie Zapinski of Austin said she was arrested in 2003 for misdemeanor marijuana possession in Harris County. She said at the time the experience of going through the criminal justice system compounded with the trauma of living through an abusive relationship.
Today, she is living with diabetic neuropathy and the consequences of a 17-year-old conviction on her record. She said she believes the House vote sends a signal to Texas legislators.
“It would definitely remove one of the roadblocks that Texas has constantly put forth, in that, it is part of the Controlled Substances Act. So that excuse would no longer be valid,” Zapinksi said.
But it faces a tough challenge from Republican leaders. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not expected to take the MORE Act to the floor for a vote. Texas’ Senators have also been historically reluctant to support reforming federal marijuana laws.
“It’s very difficult to see to see comprehensive progress get made at the federal level, as long as Mitch McConnell is the Senate Majority Leader,” Justin Strekal, NRML political director, said.
Zapinski plans to return to the Texas legislature in January to advocate for — at the very least — the expansion of the program that legalizes low THC cannabis to qualifying patients. She would actually like to see the 0.3% THC cap removed from the Texas law, as well as the creation of a program would allow Texans to grow their own medical cannabis.
“We just can't keep going around in circles and not taking advantage of something that's naturally available to help people,” Zapinski said.