House Bill to Legalize Cannabis in U.S. Raises Questions in Arizona

A crowd gathered when Curaleaf Midtown began selling recreational marijuana in early 2021.
A crowd gathered when Curaleaf Midtown began selling recreational marijuana in early 2021. Jacob Tyler Dunn
In a 220-204 party-line vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Friday that would legalize marijuana in the U.S. and decriminalize the manufacturing, distribution, and possession of a drug currently listed as a Schedule I substance.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act would also create a process to expunge cannabis convictions, impose a tax on cannabis products and establish a trust fund to support communities impacted by the nation's decades-long war on drugs. The federal sales tax would gradually increase from 5 to 8 percent. Proceeds would partially go toward community programs such as legal aid and expungement, youth mentoring, and job training.

Historically, Latinos and Blacks have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs, with a higher likelihood of federal sentencing and longer drug sentences than their white counterparts.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the legislation “one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history.”

Pelosi said the bill (also called the MORE Act) would serve “justice for those harmed by the brutal, unfair consequences of criminalization,” and give people opportunities to participate in the industry and decriminalize marijuana at the federal level “so we do not repeat the grave mistakes of our past.”

Now a bigger challenge awaits — passage in the U.S. Senate.

All five Democrats in Arizona voted to pass the measure, while all four Republicans rejected it, mirroring the overall party-line vote.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Arizona since 2010 and voters approved recreational pot through Proposition 207 in November 2020, with sales starting swiftly in January 2021. Prop 207 also allowed those with cannabis offenses to expunge their records. The Maricopa County Superior Court reported an average of 650 people per week filed expungement requests as of August 2021, resulting in more than 3,600 expungements.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office reported two weeks ago that it has filed more than 10,000 expungement petitions, which are expected to be approved.

Arizonans have spent an estimated $1.9 billion on medical and recreational marijuana since recreational sales began in the state. Across the country, legal cannabis sales totaled $20 billion in 2020, according to the MORE Act, which projected that sales would reach $40.5 billion by 2025.

Raul Molina, co-founder and chief operating officer at Mint Cannabis in the Phoenix area, said he doesn’t think that federal legalization would affect the average Arizona cannabis consumer, though it could make a profound difference in the industry.

“There’s probably about 15,000 people who are employed by the industry in Arizona, and they have a hard time renting, buying a house and doing all sorts of things because of the industry’s inability to use proper banks,” he said.

Molina, who operates dispensaries in Tempe, Mesa and Phoenix, with two more on the way, also looks forward to reduced interest rates following federal legalization. He said that the industry currently relies on hard money loans, which are secured by property with interest rates that can top 18 percent.

Interstate commerce is another interesting consideration. All but two states have some form of legalized marijuana, whether for medical use, adult recreational use, or, like Arizona, both.

Each state has its own cannabis program and cannot sell or move product past state lines, so federal legalization could bring in some serious green for established brands like Curaleaf and Harvest House of Cannabis, both of which operate in Arizona and at least a handful of other states.

“How do we position Arizona as an export state?” asked Demitri Downing, founder of Arizona's Marijuana Industry Trade Association. Downing said the Arizona industry can take the knowledge it has gleaned and push it across the country, but he has no idea what commerce might look like.

“Will cannabis flow across the borders and in what form, in what potency?” he asked, noting that Arizona consumers ask for brands from states like California and New York.

Though Downing advocates for the industry and for freedom of choice rather than prohibition (like 60 percent of Americans who favor medical and recreational legalization, according to Pew Research Center), he is not optimistic that the measure will pass through the Senate.

“It would take a proactive administration to legalize it and I don’t see Joe Biden’s administration having the courage or the political capabilities of doing something so dramatic,” Downing said.

Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon, are working on their own proposal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. That's an alternative to trying to move the House bill through the Senate, where the measure still faces an uphill battle. All Democrats and 10 Republicans would need to vote in favor to advance the bill to a final vote.

While Molina is hopeful that the measure will pass, he is not holding his breath.

“In the cannabis industry, we’ve learned to accept things in the time that they come,” he said.
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Natasha Yee is a freelance writer and yoga teacher who likes to explore the city. She considers the thesaurus her best friend.
Contact: Natasha Yee