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Editorial: Senate should join House in decriminalizing pot

Congress is moving to rationalize marijuana law by bringing federal regulations more closely in line with those in states such as Michigan that have legalized pot.

The House recently passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE), which would remove pot from the list of controlled substances and end federal criminal penalties for individuals who manufacture, possess or distribute the drug.

In addition, it would allow for the expungement of previous convictions on federal marijuana charges.

The MORE Act awaits consideration in the Senate, which has blocked passage of earlier measures.

Twenty-four states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and 18, including Michigan, have also decriminalized recreational pot.

Marijuana is now legal at the state level in both red and blue states. But users, growers and distributors in those states are still at risk of facing criminal charges under federal law, which treats pot the same as it does more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

That murky status has hampered the development of marijuana as a commercial enterprise.

For example, because banks are federally regulated, marijuana  manufacturers and distributors in pot-legal states can't fully use the financial system, forcing them into cash-only transactions for much of their business. A law to change that is also pending in the Senate.

Marijuana manufacturers also have a tougher time getting traditional financing to start or expand their businesses.

Along with decriminalizing pot, the MORE Act would:

► Make Small Business Administration loans and services available to legal cannabis-related businesses or service providers;

► Prohibit the denial of federal public benefits to those who have been convicted of certain marijuana-related conduct or convictions;

► Remove benefit restrictions on immigrants with marijuana crimes on their records;

► And establish a process to expunge convictions for federal cannabis offenses.

And of course, it adds a federal excise tax to marijuana sales.

The bill passed the House with the support of just three Republicans, signaling a tough fight in the evenly divided Senate, where it will need 60 votes to pass.

The measure in one form or another has been bouncing around Congress for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, the number of states that have legalized marijuana increases with each election cycle. 

The Senate is well behind public opinion on this issue. 

Federal decriminalization of marijuana would not impose legalization on states that choose to keep the substance illegal.

It would, however, allow the industry to move fully out of the shadows and maximize its potential in states that have legalized pot use, manufacturing and sales.

It would also provide some certainty within pot-legal states that those who follow state law won't be subject to federal prosecution.

The Senate should give its approval to the MORE Act.