The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday voted to federally decriminalize marijuana, marking the first time either chamber of Congress has voted to end federal prohibition of the drug.
The Democrat-controlled House, which voted 228-164 mostly along party lines in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, celebrated the vote as a “historic” milestone for cannabis reform. It’s expected, however, to be a largely symbolic move, as the bill will almost certainly fail in the Senate.
Nevertheless, supporters say the vote reflects shifting public opinion on marijuana. The drug is now legal in 15 states, and polling indicates that the majority of Americans support decriminalization.
“We need to catch up with the rest of the American people,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the MORE Act, said in a statement.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), the only House Republican to co-sponsor the legislation, said the time had come to end the so-called war on drugs.
“If we were measuring the success of the war on drugs … drugs have won,” he said, according to Axios. “Because the American people do not support the policies of incarceration, limited research, limited choice and, particularly, constraining medical application.”
Other than removing marijuana from the federal schedule of controlled substances, the MORE Act provides for the expungement of some federal marijuana convictions and prohibits the denial of federal public benefits based solely on marijuana offenses. It would also place a 5% excise tax on marijuana that would help fund programs such as job training and reentry services for “individuals most adversely impacted by the war on drugs.”
As the House noted in a statement, these individuals include a disproportionately large number of Black and brown people.
“The continued enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws results in over 600,000 arrests annually, disproportionately impacting people of color who are almost four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their white counterparts, despite equal rates of use across populations,” the statement said. “Too often, cases of low-level cannabis possession escalate to police violence. For many, the selective enforcement of cannabis prohibition becomes a matter of life and death.”
Blumenauer said that by not acting over the years, Congress has “failed three generations of Black and Brown young people, whose lives can be ruined, or lost, by selective enforcement” of marijuana laws. He said the MORE Act “will end that disaster.”
Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have scoffed at the bill, characterizing it as a trivial issue used by Democrats to divert attention from ongoing coronavirus stimulus bill negotiations.
“The House of Representatives is spending this week on pressing issues like marijuana. You know, serious and important legislation befitting this national crisis,” McConnell said in a statement. “But here in the Senate, I put forward a serious and highly targeted relief proposal including the elements which we know the President is ready and willing to sign into law. Why should these impactful and non-controversial life preservers be delayed one second longer?”
Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), said Wednesday that they would support a bipartisan $908 billion pandemic response bill.
Schumer also expressed his support for the MORE Act on Friday.
“Draconian marijuana laws contribute to racial inequality,” he said. “The House just took a historic step towards finally ending the federal prohibition on marijuana, advancing criminal justice reform, and helping level the economic playing field.”