The U.S. House last week passed the MORE Act, marking the first time a federal legislative body has voted to remove cannabis from the criminal code.
Just weeks ago, the move might have been called a historic event, but an empty exercise, because the Senate as it's currently composed is unlikely to even bring such a bill to the floor for a vote, much less pass it. But it might now be more than that, and not only because the Democrats might take control of the Senate next month—an eventuality few people had considered likely before Election Day last month.
In truth, passing the bill is still not likely, but it's much closer to possible than it had been because of the two close runoff elections in Georgia that, if both are won by the Democratic candidates on Jan. 5, would strip Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of his power to block bills loosening restrictions on the legal pot trade. That includes decriminalization or legalization, which he has blocked consistently despite the overwhelming popularity of legalization, even among Republican voters.
Even if the Senate doesn't change hands, though, the House's historic move will prove to be powerful for another reason that goes beyond symbolism: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, which gets written any time a congressional committee passes a bill that impacts taxes and spending.
The CBO finally issued that report on Friday—more than a year after the MORE Act passed out of the Judiciary Committee—estimating if the MORE Act were to become law, the government would take in about $13.7 billion in net revenue over the next decade.
Most of that—about $8 billion—would come in the form of income and payroll taxes collected from legal cannabis businesses, according to the CBO. Another $5.7 billion would come from an excise tax. Meanwhile, passage of the act would save the federal prison system about $1 billion.
Of course, everybody already knew the government would receive a windfall from legal weed, but the fact that a nonpartisan government body has officially injected numbers into the debate gives advocates a heft they didn't have before. The windfall is no longer theoretical.
The full name of the proposed law is the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act, and it indeed goes well beyond simply decriminalizing pot.
If passed, the law would also require past cannabis-related criminal convictions be expunged and certain convictions be re-sentenced. That would reduce time served by 73,000 "prison-hours," according to the CBO, counting both current and potential future inmates.
The excise tax would go toward programs for ex-cons and others harmed by decades of federal prohibition, such as financing job training and legal aid and grants to state and local governments to support small cannabis businesses with grants and loans.
The tax for businesses would start at 5 percent of the cost of production and be adjusted in ensuing years.
The CBO did note the MORE Act would cause spikes in some federal spending. For instance, all those newly freed prisoners would likely tap into entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. But those costs would be more than offset by the tides of new revenues.
If McConnell retains his position after the Georgia runoffs, it likely will be at least a couple of years before the MORE Act becomes law. McConnell has used pot as a wedge issue, making goofy jokes and disparaging comments to paint Democrats as a bunch of radical hippies, or at least as unserious, despite his own party's support for decriminalization.
Even so, the House's vote still stands as a major milestone. It seems inevitable it, or something similar, will pass within a few years, and will prove to be "a huge difference for people all across America," according to Rep. Earl Blumenaure of Oregon, a Democrat who has been one of the loudest proponents of ending prohibition. That is, he says, once "Congress starts to catch up to where the American public is."