On Dec. 4, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (the MORE Act), which decriminalizes marijuana use at the federal level. The bill’s passage in the House is a reminder to the church that the conversation surrounding marijuana is an important one to be having—particularly since Christian leaders are offering different views on the topic.
“Marijuana legalization is unwise and disastrous for communities vulnerable to substance abuse,” said Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Pastors know this firsthand as they minister to families in their churches who have been harmed by the marijuana industry’s profit-driven efforts to romanticize mind-altering drugs.”
But Christina Dent, founder and president of End It for Good, argues that criminalizing a drug like marijuana is more disastrous than making it legal. “I supported marijuana prohibition for most of my life out of good intentions,” said Dent in a statement provided to ChurchLeaders. She changed her position, however, after she became a foster parent and saw the impact of criminalization on her foster son’s biological mother.
“As a Christian who believes that every person is made in the image of God, I want to protect people from harm,” said Dent, “but intent doesn’t equal outcome. When I stepped back and learned about the unintended consequences of prohibiting marijuana, I couldn’t support it anymore. It’s destroying millions of lives through violence from the underground market, poisoning from contaminated substances, and incarceration of consumers.”
The MORE Act Looks to Be Symbolic…for Now
A summary of the MORE Act, otherwise known as H.R. 3884, says, “This bill decriminalizes marijuana. Specifically, it removes marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses marijuana.”
The bill makes several changes, including replacing statutory references to “marijuana” with the term “cannabis,” levying a five percent tax on cannabis products, and establishing a trust fund for people and businesses in areas that have been impacted by the war on drugs.
The bill easily passed in the House with 228 voting for it and 164 voting against it. The votes fell predominantly along party lines: Only six Democrats voted against the bill and only five Republicans voted for it. Nevertheless, drug policy expert John Hudak told CNN Business he would give the MORE Act “less than a snowball’s chance” of passing in the Senate, where Republicans currently have 50 seats and Democrats have 48. The Jan. 5 runoff races for the other two Senate seats will not impact the bill because if the MORE Act does not pass by Jan. 3, it will have to be reintroduced to Congress.
More and more states have been legalizing marijuana over the past several years. According to Business Insider, the drug is currently legal in 11 states and Washington D.C., and medicinal marijuana is legal in 34 states. You can view a breakdown of the laws governing marijuana usage by state here.
But even though recreational marijuana is legal in some parts of the country, federal law still prohibits it, meaning state and federal laws are in conflict with each other. The Controlled Substances Act currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance along with heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. There are a total of five schedules that classify substances, and Schedule 1 drugs are considered to pose the greatest threat to people. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says, “Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Under federal law, a person charged with a first possession offense for marijuana faces misdemeanor penalties, and a second possession offense is a felony.
Despite these severe penalties, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that cannabis is “the most commonly used psychotropic drug in the United States, after alcohol.” And the federal government has adopted a somewhat tolerant approach to its use.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “Federal prohibition of small-scale possession [of marijuana] is virtually unenforced…Complete prohibition is the federal law, but partial prohibition is the practice. However, the law, even though partly unenforced, has probably had a restraining influence on the willingness of states to adopt policies of less than complete prohibition.”
How do states and the federal government navigate the fact that their laws conflict? When Colorado and Washington State legalized marijuana in 2012, the Obama Administration decided not to interfere, but instead to adopt a “trust but verify” policy. Since marijuana use was still a crime under federal law, the Justice Department published a list of eight priorities for federal prosecutors to target, such as offenses that involve violence or the sale of drugs to cartels.