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House Passes Landmark Bill Decriminalizing Marijuana

The House passed sweeping legislation that would decriminalize marijuana and expunge nonviolent marijuana-related convictions. The measure is all but doomed in the Republican-led Senate.

House Votes to Decriminalize Marijuana

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday passed legislation that would decriminalize marijuana and expunge nonviolent marijuana-related convictions. The measure is aimed at rolling back drug policies that have disproportionately affected low-income communities of color.

“Marijuana use is either socially acceptable behavior or it’s criminal conduct, but it can’t be socially acceptable behavior in some neighborhoods and criminal conduct in other neighborhoods when the dividing line is race.” “Yes, legalizing weed would create revenue from taxes, but at what cost — do we then start legalizing cocaine? Marijuana is a gateway drug, make no mistake about that. And while I do believe that medical marijuana can have some activity in chronic pain or those with cancer, this bill simply goes way too far.” “We’re here because we have failed three generations of black and brown young people whose lives can be ruined or lost by selective enforcement of these laws.” “It is time we think about the real needs of our constituents. Get back to work on legislation that matters. Our priority should not be legalize — legalizing drugs.” “On this vote, the ‘yeas’ are 228, the ‘nays’ are 164. The bill is passed without objection. The motion to reconsider is laid on the table.”

  • Published Dec. 4, 2020 Updated Dec. 6, 2020

WASHINGTON — The House on Friday passed sweeping legislation that would decriminalize marijuana and expunge nonviolent marijuana-related convictions, as Democrats sought to roll back and compensate for decades of drug policies that have disproportionately affected low-income communities of color.

The 228-164 vote to approve the measure was bipartisan, and it was the first time either chamber of Congress had ever endorsed the legalization of cannabis. The bill would remove the drug from the Controlled Substances Act and authorize a 5 percent tax on marijuana that would fund community and small business grant programs to help those most impacted by the criminalization of marijuana.

The legislation is, for now, almost certainly doomed in the Republican-led Senate, where that party’s leaders have derided it as a superficial distraction from the work of passing coronavirus relief, as lawmakers inched toward bipartisan compromise after spending months locked in an impasse.

But the bill’s passage in the House amounted to a watershed moment decades in the making for advocates of marijuana legislation, and it laid out an expansive federal framework for redressing the racial disparities in the criminal justice system exacerbated by the war on drugs.

“The effects of marijuana prohibition have been particularly felt by communities of color because it has meant that people from the communities couldn’t get jobs,” Representative Jerry Nadler, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview.

Mr. Nadler, who spearheaded the legislation with Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California and the vice president-elect, described the collateral consequences of a conviction for marijuana possession as creating “an often-permanent second-class status for millions of Americans.”

The idea behind the legislation is “you want to make whole these communities, and you want to compensate,” he said. “You want to shed light on what was done.”

The legislation intends to give states power and incentives to enact their own reforms, and its passage came as states around the country, including some conservative-leaning ones, have become increasingly open to decriminalizing marijuana amid a growing consensus that the war on drugs has been destructive. Fifteen states have legalized recreational cannabis, and voters in five states last month voted on legalization issues, bringing the number of states where medical marijuana is legal to 35.

The law would require federal courts to release those serving sentences for nonviolent, marijuana-related offenses, and set up grant programs focused on providing job training, legal aid and substance use treatment, as well as grants for small businesses in the marijuana industry led by low-income and minority business owners. Physicians with the Department of Veterans Affairs would also be allowed for the first time to recommend medical marijuana to their patients.

It is the first major piece of legislation aimed at addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system that Congress has taken up since June, when the House, responding to a national outcry for racial justice, passed a behemoth policing overhaul bill, which ultimately was stalled by partisan disagreement. To date, Congress has yet to send any legislation to the president’s desk addressing the issue since nationwide protests last summer.

“This is part of the same effort to make it possible for minority communities to live on an equal basis in this country,” Mr. Nadler said.

Republicans denounced the bill, and castigated Democrats for bringing it to the floor before lawmakers had struck a compromise on coronavirus relief. Democrats had postponed a vote on the legislation scheduled earlier in the fall after some moderate lawmakers facing difficult re-election races fretted about fending off those attacks, during a campaign in which Republicans accused them of backing a radical liberal agenda.

“With mere days left in the year to get something done for the American people who are suffering, Speaker Pelosi has brought up a drug legalization bill,” said Representative Pete Stauber, Republican of Minnesota. “As children struggle to receive their education and child care facilities close; as seniors remain isolated from their families, this is their solution.”

Five Republicans broke from their party to support the bill, as did Representative Justin Amash, Libertarian of Michigan. But some who ultimately voted for the bill were vocal in airing their complaints.

“If Pelosi was serious about marijuana reform we would take a vote on the STATES Act, which would pass the Senate and be signed into law,” Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, said, referencing a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate that would legalize marijuana. “But she isn’t. So we’ll do this instead.”

Mr. Gaetz added: “I prefer my marijuana reform not dipped in reparations policy, frankly.”

For Democrats, that was exactly the point.

Forty percent of drug arrests made in 2018 were for marijuana offenses — and just over 90 percent of those arrests were for possessing the drug, according to a report from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. A separate report released by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that Black people are more than three times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession despite comparable usage rates.

“Marijuana use is either socially acceptable behavior or it’s criminal conduct,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York. “But it can’t be socially acceptable behavior in some neighborhoods and criminal conduct in other neighborhoods when the dividing line is race.”

The House passed sweeping legislation that would decriminalize marijuana and expunge nonviolent marijuana-related convictions. The measure is all but doomed in the Republican-led Senate.

House passes historic bill to decriminalize cannabis

House passes bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level

As the cannabis industry continues to take root state by state, the House of Representatives voted in favor of removing marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The House voted Friday on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or MORE Act, which decriminalizes cannabis and clears the way to erase nonviolent federal marijuana convictions. The Senate is unlikely to approve the bill.

The MORE Act also creates pathways for ownership opportunities in the emerging industry, allows veterans to obtain medical cannabis recommendations from Veteran Affairs doctors, and establishes funding sources to reinvest in communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

Friday’s vote was the first time a full chamber of Congress has taken up the issue of federally decriminalizing cannabis. Of the vote count, 222 Democrats were in favor of passing the MORE Act and six were against it. Five Republicans voted in favor of it and 158 voted against passing it.

House passes bill to decriminalize marijuana

“It is the right thing to do,” said co-sponsor of the MORE Act, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus prior to Friday’s vote. “For too long, the war on drugs has targeted young people, especially Black people, and rejected the advice of experts.”

Blumenauer, whose congressional district includes parts of Portland, has been working to end cannabis prohibition since the 1970s, when he was in the state Legislature. He said that the drug war “never made any sense” to him and that it was instead born out of President Richard Nixon’s “cynical” view on cannabis and other controlled substances.

Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in the early 1970s, calling drug abuse “public enemy number one” following the rise of recreational drugs in the 1960s. He aimed to reduce use, distribution and trade with tough enforcement and prison sentences.

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Blumenaer said that unlike heroin and ecstasy, both of which are also Schedule 1 drugs, cannabis is not addictive, and it has been found to have therapeutic properties for managing pain. (Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations indicates that marijuana can, indeed, be addictive.)

“Public acceptance is at an all-time high,” he said. “This is an idea whose time has come.”

Cannabis won big on Election Day last month. Voters in five states — Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Mississippi — approved measures to legalize some form of marijuana use. Now, 15 states, two territories and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational cannabis, while 34 states and two territories allow medical marijuana.

“For decades, discriminatory cannabis policies have perpetuated yet another form of systemic racism in America, and this legislation will begin the process of restorative justice for those most harmed,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who co-sponsored the bill with Blumenauer.

Americans embrace marijuana, legalizing cannabis in five additional states

In a joint letter to Congress, Lee and Blumenauer said their reform efforts underscore the “critical issue of racial justice, and the failed war on drugs that has devastated communities of color, especially Black and Brown communities.”

“We can no longer ignore our duty to repair the damage that this harmful form of systemic racism has done,” the letter read.

The trend toward normalizing cannabis is not specific to the United States; it is part of a global movement to end prohibition. The U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted this week to remove marijuana and marijuana resin from the category of the world’s most dangerous drugs, paving the way for additional research opportunities.

Despite the recent success of reform efforts, many lawmakers remain opposed to federally decriminalizing cannabis. Among them is Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., who said on Thursday that she intended to vote against the MORE Act.

In an emailed statement, Lesko said Democrats have “chosen to waste the House’s time” with a bill that “will never be signed into law.”

“Not only is this a dereliction of duty, the bill is simply bad policy,” she said. “It does nothing to deter the use of marijuana by children, fails to require a warning label on the health risks posed by marijuana, and disregards science that shows marijuana directly affects parts of the brain responsible for memory and learning.”

Supporters of the bill counter that the MORE Act would reconcile legal tensions between states and the federal government. Since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, dozens of states have launched recreational and medicinal cannabis programs in open defiance of federal law, creating confusion when it comes to taxing, transporting and even traveling with marijuana.

The unspoken truce between states and the federal government was codified in 2013 when Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo updating guidelines to federal prosecutors about marijuana enforcement under the Controlled Substances Act.

The so-called Cole Memo was issued after voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized cannabis for adult use even though marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug. With state laws at odds with federal laws, prosecutors were instructed to focus on only the highest level of cannabis-related offenses, including distributing to minors, conspiring with drug cartels and engaging in violence.

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If cannabis is descheduled through the MORE Act, large banks and institutions would be more likely to enter the marijuana industry once a legal framework is established, said Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

“It is bad statecraft when you have states completely defying the federal government,” he said. “It engenders disrespect for the law.”

While advocates expect the MORE Act to pass in the Democratic-controlled House, the Senate presents another obstacle altogether. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has slammed Democratic efforts to include diversity studies as part of cannabis reform, saying this year that lawmakers should instead focus on providing relief from the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, McConnell, who supports the hemp industry, met with cannabis industry insiders last year in California, signaling to some experts that perhaps cannabis reform is much closer to becoming reality.

“More and more this is becoming a bipartisan issue,” said J. “Smoke” Wallin, CEO of Vertical Wellness, a California-based hemp and CBD company. “When you look at states that just passed cannabis laws, you have blue, red and purple. It’s more a question of when it happens and how.”

Alicia Victoria Lozano is a Los Angeles-based digital reporter for NBC News.

As the cannabis industry continues to take root state by state, the House voted in favor of removing marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act.