The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to federally legalize marijuana in a historic vote on Friday.
It's the day that cannabis reform advocates have been building toward for years—a full floor vote to end prohibition in a chamber of Congress.
Prior to the bill's approval in a 228 to 164 vote, Republican lawmakers spent days criticizing their Democratic counterparts for even bringing the legislation to the floor.
While the vote was mostly along party lines, five Republicans supported the reform and six Democrats opposed it.
Under the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, cannabis would be federally descheduled and those with prior convictions would have their records expunged. The descheduling provisions would be retroactive, too.
Despite the unprecedented House victory for reformers, few believe the legislation stands a chance in the Republican-controlled Senate, at least before the end of the current Congress early next month. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead sponsor of the Senate companion version of the bill.
Ahead of the bill's passage, debate on the floor largely consisted of Democrats making the case that the reform will help to right the wrongs of the racist war on drugs, and Republicans arguing that legalization would cause harms to children and public safety and that now is not the right time to consider the issue in any case.
“Across this nation, thousands of men and women have suffered needlessly from the federal criminalization of marijuana, particularly in communities of color and have borne the burden of collateral consequences for those ensnared in criminal legal systems that have damaged our society across generations,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said in her opening remarks. “This is unacceptable and we must change our laws. It is time for Congress to catch up with the reforms that states are enacting.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor of the legislation, said that while he feels the bill is “flawed,” he is voting for it “because the federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana for a generation.
“We have seen a generation, particularly of black and brown youth, locked up for offenses that not should have not resulted in any incarceration whatsoever,” he said.
The fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), said cannabis criminalization represents “a stain on our democracy,” emphasizing ongoing racial disparities in enforcement despite the fact that black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rates.
Congressional Cannabis Caucus Co-chair Barbara Lee (D-CA) said the MORE Act “is an important racial justice measure” and “the product of years of work by so many activists and advocates and young people—and it's long overdue.”
“It's time to end these unjust laws which has shattered the lives of so many young people of color,” the congresswoman, who presided over the chamber during the final vote, said.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), another Cannabis Caucus co-chair and longtime marijuana reform advocate, gave an impassioned speech in support of the bill.
“We're not rushing to legalize marijuana,” he said. “The American people have all ready done that. We're here because Congress has failed to deal with the disastrous war on drugs and do its part for the over 50 million regular marijuana users [who live in] every one of your districts.”
“It's time for Congress to step up and do its part,” he said. “We need to catch up with the rest of the American people.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) repeated the GOP criticism of Democratic priorities with this vote and slammed the tax provisions of the MORE Act.
“This bill—it's not enough just to legalize marijuana. They want taxpayers to pay for it,” he said of Democrats. “This bill sets up a grant program. This is the marijuana business infrastructure bill.”
Prior to the vote on final passage, the House considered a motion to recommit—the minority party's only tool to amend the bill—from Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) to add language clarifying that “an employer may test an employee or applicant for cannabis use to ensure workplace and public safety.” That proposal was rejected by a tally of 218 to 174, with one member voting present.
“In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic House Democrats are rushing to pass a sweeping marijuana legalization bill without considering the unintended consequences the legislation will have on workplace and public safety,” she said. The vote on the motion will occur after the vote on passage.
“Wars are costly, and the war on marijuana is no exception,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) said. “The costs of the war on marijuana have disproportionately fell on the backs of blacks and Latinos.”
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) noted that “than half of all Americans live in a state where cannabis is legal” and said Congress should “align federal cannabis laws with the will of the people. Let's take full advantage of the medical benefits of cannabis.”
He also thanked House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the bill's sponsor, for including one of his proposals to require a study of the benefits of medical cannabis for veterans in an adopted manager's amendment.
“For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health,” Nadler, who was not present for the debate, said in a written statement.
“Whatever one's views are on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, the policy of arrests, prosecution, and incarceration at the Federal level has proven unwise and unjust,” he said.
“The bottom line is, this vote is about freedom,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) said. “It's about freedom of choice for every American to make their own decisions for themselves without fear of the government coming and arresting them.”
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) voiced opposition to the legislation and inaccurately claimed that voters in his state “barely” approved a measure to legalize marijuana during last month's election. In fact, it passed 60-40 percent—a point Blumenauer later clarified.
The chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), said the bill “will restore justice to our most marginalized communities and it will boost our economy.” She added that “communities of color have disproportionately suffered from the so-called war on drugs” and they “have also been locked out of traditional capital markets.”
“That is why the MORE Act is the best legislation to advance progress on this issue,” she said.
It's been about a year since the legislation cleared the Judiciary Committee. Advocates have been pushing for a floor vote ever since, and leadership initially said that would take place in September. But certain centrist Democrats urged a delay, citing concerns about the optics of advancing the reform before passing another round of coronavirus relief.
Leadership agreed but promised a floor vote before the year's end. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) recently announced that the action would take place this week, and the procedural rules for floor consideration were approved in committee on Wednesday. The House began preliminary debate and accepted the rule—which closed the bill to further amendments—on Thursday.
GOP lawmakers have repeatedly hit House leadership after plans of the vote on the MORE Act were announced. While many have lashed out on Twitter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took to the floor of his chamber to condemn the move on Thursday, sarcastically mocking Democrats for “spending this week on pressing issues like marijuana.”
One House Democrat, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), echoed the GOP criticism, saying that this “isn't the right way” to advance reform and arguing that lawmakers should instead be focused on COVID-19 relief.
Before coming to the floor, the legislation was revised in a Rules Committee Print, transmitted from Nadler's Judiciary panel, and further modified in a manager's amendment he filed. Most of the revisions were technical in nature, though there was one significant change as it relates to the proposed tax structure for marijuana.
As now structured, the MORE Act would make it so cannabis would be federally taxed at five percent for the first two years after implementation and then increased by one percent each year until reaching eight percent. After five years, taxes would be applied to marijuana products based on weight rather than price.
The bill would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.
A new Cannabis Justice Office under the Justice Department would be responsible for distributing funds providing loans for small cannabis businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The bill also seeks to minimize barriers to licensing and employment in the legal industry.
It would also establish a Community Reinvestment Grant Program. Tax dollars appropriated to that program would go to job training, legal aid for criminal and civil cases such as those concerning marijuana-related expungements, literacy programs and youth recreation and mentoring services, among other programs.
In new changes that some reform advocates take exception to, the legislation also stipulates that the heads of the Transportation Department and Coast Guard may continue to include marijuana in drug testing programs for safety-sensitive positions and clarifies that the expungement provisions only apply to “non-violent marijuana offenders” and bars so-called “kingpins” from obtaining expungements.
Advocates were optimistic about the bill's advancement through the House, but it should be noted that its prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate this session are dim. McConnell is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.
Still, the historic nature of a vote by a chamber of Congress to legalize marijuana is hard to overstate. While the House has on two previous occasions approved amendments to shield all state marijuana laws from federal interference (which later died in the Senate), never before has legislation to formally remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act advanced on Capitol Hill.
Legalization advocates heralded the vote as a watershed moment for the movement.
Justin Stekal, political director of NORML, said this “is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States.”
“This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance, and it marks the first time in 24 years—when California became the first state defy the federal government on the issue of marijuana prohibition—that Congress has sought to close the widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies,” he said. “By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations—arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”
Aaron Smith, chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association said that “the symbolic and historical importance of the MORE Act passing in the House cannot be overstated.”
“This vote stands as a rebuke of failed and harmful prohibition policies, and represents a growing understanding of their racially and economically disparate impacts,” he said. “Americans are increasingly ready to see cannabis legal for adults and sensibly regulated, which they showed through their representatives today and at the ballot box last month.”
Steve Fox, a strategic advisor to the Cannabis Trade Federation, said it is “a day of celebration for everyone who has worked to end cannabis prohibition over the past 25 years. All of those efforts have built toward this day.”
While celebrating the overall legislation, Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins noted that “it falls short of a perfect bill and at least one provision can hopefully be removed before final enactment.”
“An amendment inserted in the final days before today's vote would empower the federal government to prevent Americans who have been charged with cannabis-related felonies from working in the marijuana industry,” he said. “This policy could block many of those individuals accused of prior marijuana offenses from participating in the legal market, which will inhibit our ability to create an equitable and fair marijuana industry. The fact that it might apply to people who were never even convicted of a crime makes it particularly unacceptable.”
Overall, the passage of the legalization legislation could send a strong signal to the incoming presidential administration, and it sets the stage for similar action in 2021—especially if Democrats win control of the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia next month.
Given President-elect Joe Biden's former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.
A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges. While Harris is sponsoring the MORE Act, she's indicated that she would not necessarily push the president-elect to adopt a pro-legalization position.
That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”
For his part, Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service released an analysis of the MORE Act last month, finding that the bill's passage could “reverse” the current cannabis policy gap that exists between states and the federal government.
Featured image by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
This article has been republished from Marijuana Moment under a content-sharing agreement. Read the original article here.