Is the MORE Act really ‘more’?

written by Alexandra Arnett @calyx.alex

Much of the cannabis community was elated to hear that the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. I would like to preface this article by stating that the passing of the MORE Act by the House is indeed a momentous victory for the cannabis industry. The Senate, although not likely to pass it, have until the end of 2020 to vote on this legislation. However, the MORE Act is not without some major flaws that could do harm to the industry. In the days following the passage of the MORE Act, many cannabis and social justice advocates began speaking out about the changes that were made to the legislation before it passed the House. Throughout this brief article, I will highlight some of the positives as well as detail some of the flaws within this legislation.

One of the major things about this legislation, if it were to pass, is that it would completely remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This specific amendment to the CSA would be a game-changer for those who are currently conducting or who want to conduct cannabis research. In addition to the removal of cannabis from the CSA, the MORE Act ensures no person will be denied federal public benefits due to cannabis use or past convictions. The protection also extends to immigrants who may use cannabis or have cannabis convictions. The MORE Act also effectively changes how legislation refers to the plant, instead of “marihuana” the term “cannabis” would be used. Another positive aspect of the MORE Act would be the ability of cannabis businesses to work with banks and obtain business loans.

The biggest flaw in this legislation has three parts. The first is that you must be issued a federal permit to run a cannabis business, which can still be denied if the person is or has been involved in violations of federal or state laws related to cannabis. There are no provisions in the bill stating that those with permits issued in legal cannabis states will be automatically accepted. This means a higher cost to business owners who are starting out and another hurdle to jump through for those already running a state legal cannabis business. You can read the particular section here (Sec. 5923 (e)). The second is a particular section regarding the distribution of the Community Reinvestment Grant Program funds. Prior to being passed in the House, the text had a 7th provision in Sec. 3052 (a), which states where the funds must be allocated to help individuals harmed by the War on Drugs. This 7th provision stated, “services to address any collateral consequences that individuals or communities face as a result of the War on Drugs.” The Community Reinvestment Grant Program still provides help for those harmed via job training, reentry services, legal aid, literacy programs, youth programs, and health education programs. However, the War on Drugs systemically harmed many individuals and their communities in more ways than that. It’s also important to note that from the Opportunity Trust Fund, the Attorney General gets 60% while the Community Reinvestment Grant Program gets 40%.

The third major flaw is that the MORE Act does not exactly call for automatic expungements for cannabis crimes as soon as the bill passes. It allows them one year from the date of enactment to order expungements for those convicted in cannabis crimes. You can read this particular section here. While it does allow for those convicted of crimes to petition the court themselves after its enactment, this puts an undue burden on people who may not have the resources to do so. Those currently incarcerated for cannabis crimes still have to go through a sentencing review hearing before they are released. In addition, only non-violent cannabis crimes will be eligible for expungements and sentencing hearings. Now, we are not saying violent crime isn’t a bad thing, but we know all too well how the criminal justice system treats minorities. This is especially true when it comes to drug crimes. 

Now, we must also consider the financial impact on businesses and consumers if the MORE Act were to pass the Senate and be signed into law. With the current legislation as written, there would be an annual tax on cannabis businesses of $1,000 and an initial 5% federal tax on cannabis products to consumers that is set to increase to 8% within 5 years. In states like Oregon, California, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Washington, this can bring the total taxes in these states to anywhere between 30% and 50%. Washington cannabis taxes are currently 37%, by adding an 8% federal tax within 5 years, this would mean consumers would be paying 45% in taxes alone. This puts an undue burden on the working class and makes it unattainable for some who need it the most, such as people on disability with limited income. On top of taxes for the product itself and the annual business tax, there is another tax on the packaging used for the product. This specific tax can also be left up to the discretion of the Secretary. On another note, testing of cannabis can still be required for federal employees.

If you’re interested in keeping up with what’s going on in the fine print, Nina Parks is a great activist and cannabis entrepreneur to follow. Her Instagram and business pages can be found here: @nina_parks, @equitytradecertification. 

Intersectional Relief

written by Guthrie Stafford, photographed by Connor Cox

As legalization sweeps the nation it becomes easier and easier to take the medicinal qualities of cannabis for granted. And yet, this progress is only possible because people with disabilities have fought tirelessly for the right to relief from mental and physical pain. I sat down with Sai Marie, a local cannabis user who lives with fibromyalgia, partial hearing loss, anxiety and depression, to learn more. We discussed medicinal cannabis, coming to terms with mental illness and Sai’s experience growing up as a biracial native woman. 

At 35, Sai Marie is an accomplished author of poetry, sci-fi and fantasy short stories as well as a mother of three. She radiates the confidence unique to published poets and sports a large turquoise necklace, a gift from her uncle. “From the Res,” she says. 

In the golden light of Café Roma, between sips of raspberry mocha, Sai tells me of a more challenging time in her life. She dropped out of high school so she could put more energy into motherhood, and then she went through a difficult divorce in her early twenties. Through all of it, Sai was suffering from depression as well as a mysterious, generalized pain she would later discover to be fibromyalgia. But when she sought relief from doctors, the pills they gave her robbed her of her passion for writing. “I’m a creative person,” says Sai. “I’ve taken Celexa, things like that. They made me feel zombified. That’s no way to operate. It’s existing, not really living.” 

Managing the balance between wanted and unwanted effects is a challenge when taking any medicinal drugs. And yet, side effects that change our sense of who we are, especially on an ongoing basis, are especially hard to accept. As Sai tells me, “The thing about my disabilities is that they’re constantly treatable; they’re not curable.” Unwilling to give up her art, and to a greater extent, her sense of identity, Sai Marie quit her prescriptions and started searching for an alternative. 

At 24, Sai Marie started using cannabis medicinally, but not without some initial hesitation. “There was a point in my life when I was totally against it,” she says. “You know, I was a nineties kid and D.A.R.E. was a big thing back then.” Although Sai had tried cannabis in her younger years, it took a close friend who was fighting cancer to convince her that it could be used as medicine. 

According to Sai, the choice to self-treat her fibromyalgia and depression with cannabis was less a matter of peer pressure and more of an empirical deduction. “I experienced the benefits myself so I can’t say that it doesn’t work. I’ve changed my life completely since then.” Much of this change has been Sai’s acceptance of mental illness and trauma as a permanent part of her, but not a defining part. “Cannabis allowed me to step outside of that emotional grey area, that gloomy cloud, and look at life and go, okay, this did happen, but it’s all about my perspective and what I want to do with my time.” For the kind of chronic conditions that Sai lives with, ultimate cures are not a possibility, but relief and perspective are. One factor in her choice take treatment into her own hands was growing up with a mother who defied disability stereotypes and encouraged her to explore native herbal medicine. 

Sai inherited genetic hearing loss from her mother, but she also inherited the confidence   to live with it proudly. As we talk she combs her hair behind her ear to reveal a hearing aid, pale and smooth as a shell. She still has about ten percent of her hearing, she tells me. Her mother had it much harder: a Cherokee girl growing up in the sixties in a silent world. “They wanted to send her to a special school. They put it in her head for a long time that that’s all she could do. Now she’s a psychologist, she’s a very successful woman. I had that as a mother to look up to.” Sai goes on to tell me how her mother made her conscious of her Cherokee heritage. “Since I was a little girl, it was very present in my life that I was biracial.” Part of this presence came in the form of native herbal medicine, a tradition that Sai’s mother taught her long before she conceived that cannabis might have a place in it. Turning towards the future, Sai wants to continue the practice of herbal self-treatment for her own children. But sometimes laws intervene. 

For Sai Marie’s adult children, the revolution in how we think about self treatment for pain can’t come soon enough. “My two boys are terminally ill,” Sai tells me. Both of them suffer from muscular dystrophy, a condition that slowly breaks down the skeletal muscles. CBD can help alleviate the chronic aching associated with this condition. “But they live in Tennessee, so they can’t get some of the benefits that they need. They kind of think it’s sad that they can’t have it.” Historically, Sai’s boys’ experience has been the rule rather than the exception. It’s only very recently, mainly thanks to people like Sai Marie raising their voices, that the ability to seek relief from chronic pain has been viewed as a right. And yet, now that the right to relief has taken root in the national consciousness, the swift pace of its adoption into mainstream culture gives Sai hope for a broader acceptance of disability and mental illness going forward. As Sai tells me, “If it starts as simply as giving someone a plant that can help them, then what can we do to change our world?”

Scars of Prohibition

written by Guthrie Stafford

Six years after legalization in Oregon, social perceptions of cannabis users are starting to evolve. From toking podcasters to weed-infused weddings, cannabis is shedding the reputation of Reefer Madness and assuming a more nonchalant attire in the public eye. Yet the scars of old prohibitions run deep, and while popular culture moves on, the devastation of the war on drugs is still felt by many Oregonians who were caught in the crossfire. I sat down with James Lyons, a retired craftsman, Reggae enthusiast and cannabis convict to discuss the lasting damages of criminalization and the potential for social healing. In our interview, Lyons revealed the violation and absurdity which underscored his family’s years-long struggle with the criminal justice system. Perhaps most importantly, Lyons described how the injustice with which he and his loved ones were treated tainted his perception of the government as a whole.

In 1985, James Lyons was in his mid twenties and living as he pleased. After a spinal injury had ended his career as a house painter, Lyons became an artisan craftsman, gardener, and connoisseur of Reggae. He spent half his time touring with his favorite bands, helping them out at shows, selling his creations on the side and discovering a deep affinity for Rastafarian culture and religion. The other half of his time was devoted to his home in the backwoods of Washington County where he lived with his partner and teenage niece. It was there that Lyons constructed a small greenhouse to grow “herb,” mainly for personal and social use, in accordance with the spiritual traditions of Rastafarianism. Lyons assumed that the remoteness of his domicile would protect him from the law. According to Lyons, he was so relaxed, so filled with the flow of every living thing, that when a cannabis plant self-seeded in his front garden he couldn’t bring himself to pull it up. “I let it grow,” he tells me. “Live and let live, you know. I thought, this is meant to be.” 

Unfortunately for Lyons, he had spared the Judas of cannabis plants. The police had been surveilling his property by airplane for months, but the mere presence of the greenhouse out back was not sufficient evidence for a warrant. But when the little-herb-that-could grew and became visible from the driveway, it gave the authorities all the justification they needed to bust down the door and bring Lyons’s life crashing down around him.

Lyons returned home one day to find his house torn apart and an official note setting a court date for him, his partner and his niece. “It was my thing and yet they lived with me and so they charged them too,” says Lyons. “My niece just happened to be in the house at the time. She’s always had trouble. We raised her for a while because she had been passed around in foster care, you know, so we took her in for maybe four or five years until she was old enough to go out on her own. She really didn’t need this to happen when it did.” Compounding this invasion was the fact that James’ partner knew the invaders. In fact, due to her job at city hall, they were her colleagues. “They knew all about what was going to take place for a month in advance,” Lyons tells me. “She’s working around these police officers and then all of a sudden they’re in our house and one of the first places they went was to our bedroom and tore our drawers apart. The whole place was trashed. That feels kinda violating, you know?” As he put his home back together and waited for his court date, all Lyons could hope was that  judge would be reasonable. Unfortunately, it would seem 1985 was a bad year for reasonability in criminal justice when it came to cannabis convictions.

When the court date finally came, Lyons and his lawyer marshaled his argument along two main lines. The first was that his partner and niece were incidental to the whole affair, and therefore should not even be charged. The second was that his cannabis grow was an expression of the religion of Rastafarianism rather than a commercial venture, and should therefore be treated more lightly under the law. This was a stouter defense than it might at first sound. Lyons had personal and legal precedent to back it up. “I’d been to Jamaica three times prior to that and had studied Rasta there. It really became part of my life.” Lyons had also studied under spiritual leaders of the Havasupai Nation in the Grand Canyon and knew there was legal precedence for the use of certain drugs in native ritual practice. Lyons thought he had hired the perfect lawyer to present this defense, given that the man produced ticket stubs to a Bob Marley concert at their first meeting. This opinion quickly changed when he saw how his lawyer, the prosecutor, and the Judge interacted. 

“The main thing that I got out of the court proceedings” Lyons confides, “ is that the whole legal system is all intertwined together whether the lawyer is on your side or not. He’s friends with the prosecuting attorney and they know the judge and after work they go play golf together,” said Lyons. The bizarreness of the trial was compounded by the Judge who presided over Lyons case. “He said if I was his son he would take me in the basement and beat the shit out of me,” says Lyons.  “I thought, you know, that’s kinda odd.” Despite this behavior, Lyons Judge ultimately passed the relatively lenient sentence of three year’s probation for Lyons and his partner. They were overjoyed, but they celebrated too soon. According to Lyons, when the pair subjected to a polygraph test as part of their conviction, they admitted to having used cannabis after their arrest but before their conviction. At the time the test administrator said this was not a problem. “A month later when we went back in to see our probation officers we were both arrested and thrown in jail with a six month sentence. I don’t know how that works but that’s how it did,” said Lyons. This was confirmed by Washington county public records which show that his initial three years probation was revised to a six month sentence upon violation of his probation. As arbitrary as this bait and switch seems to Lyons, he feels the true absurdity of the criminal justice system presented itself in his niece’s juvenile trial. 

Justice is supposed to be blind, but not deaf to common sense arguments. Yet such was the case in the trial of Lyons’s niece. Lyons was planning to make the same case he made for his partner, strengthened by an appeal to his niece’s young age and fragile emotional condition, in the hope of getting her off entirely. “My niece was afraid to represent herself or to say anything so I said, ‘I’m not,’ I’ll gladly go and say what I have to say.” But things started to go south before the trial even began. “Five minutes before I was to go to court and represent my niece the prosecuting attorney switched judges.” Lyon’s previous Judge, with whom he had built something of a rapport, was replaced by a new Judge who, according to Lyons, allowed the prosecution’s attack on his character to overcome Lyons’ defense of his niece’s wellbeing. 

“So this new Judge says, ‘Right there the prosecution’s proven you’re a liar. I’m not gonna hear another word out of you or I’m gonna put you in jail.’ I wasn’t aggressive or anything, I was just trying to understand what happened. It made me realize the legal system is corrupt.” Lyons’ niece paid a heavy price for the new Judges sternness. “She was put on probation and that wasn’t something she could deal with at the time. It went on for almost ten years for her. That probation just kept going on and on, and at one point they put her in a womans’ prison in Portland for at least nine months.” Lyons’ niece had nothing to do with his cannabis grow, but she suffered from addictions of her own. According to Lyons, rather than treating her as a victim of these addictions, rather than helping her find a way free of her troubled past, the legal system penalized his niece and kept her locked in a cycle of endless probation. After wrestling with the legal system for over a year, in the case of Lyons and his partner, and over ten years in the case of his niece, none of them wanted anything to do with criminal justice. 

Lyons doesn’t smoke herb anymore and his niece has escaped from the cycle of incarceration. “Life changes, you have kids and go through divorces and get different perspectives. Still, I stand with how I felt back then. I understand who I was then. Herb opened up a lot of doors in my life and taught me a lot of things, even though I don’t use it now,” says Lyons. He says he doesn’t regret growing cannabis because of the friendships and spiritual awakenings it offered him. What he regrets are the policies which made that pursuit a crime. “I think it’s been proven that the war on drugs hasn’t really worked,” he tells me. At this point in our history, that seems certain, and fortunately, state law-makers are starting to agree. Still, as we revel in our newfound liberties, it is not enough to simply end criminalization of cannabis. To heal as a society, we need to actively reincorporate former “criminals.” That means pushing for the expungement of non-violent drug offenses and reevaluating addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. Casual drug use is the least of our worries in a world so full of injustice, while the underlying causes of serious drug abuse are worsened, not alleviated, by persecution and punishment. As we’re tugged by the authoritarian undercurrents of an earlier time, the complexity of the modern world can leave our political ship somewhat rudderless. Yet there is wind in the sails of cannabis decriminalization, mostly due to the prevalence of stories like this one. As Lyons tells me: “We gotta try and change the laws.That’s how our system works. If enough people just keep pushing in that direction, eventually it’ll change.” This is no longer a matter of personal interest for Lyons. After all, he stopped smoking years ago. Now it’s a matter of principle.