WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday passed sweeping legislation that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.
The bill would also set up a process to expunge past federal convictions for marijuana violations, keep federal public benefits from being denied to people because of cannabis-related conduct, and authorize resources funded by an excise tax to address the needs of communities that were seriously impacted by drug prosecutions, including increasing the participation of communities of color in the burgeoning cannabis market.
The bill’s sponsor, House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York, said federal action on the issue “would follow the growing recognition in the states that the status quo is unacceptable.”
He noted that despite the federal government’s continuing criminalization of marijuana, 36 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis, while 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized it for adult recreational use.
Ohio legalized medical marijuana in 2016 and communities including Cleveland have decided to stop prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses.
“I have long believed that the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake, and the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws has only compounded this mistake, with serious consequences, particularly for communities of color,” said a statement from Nadler.
U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and the representative for the Lima area, led opposition to the measure on the House floor. He called it “ridiculous” that Democrats who control the House of Representatives would make legalizing marijuana and subsidizing the marijuana industry a top priority.
“Think about a small business owner … in Portland,” said Jordan. “This summer had their business destroyed because Democrat leaders in that city would not protect their business. Now Democrats in Congress are saying, ‘Oh, we want your federal tax dollars to be used to release criminals early and to buttress the marijuana industry. Such a deal.”
The legislation was adopted in a 228 to 164 vote, with support from all Ohio’s Democrats, except for Rep. Marcia Fudge of Warrensville Heights, who co-sponsored the bill but missed the vote.
“More people were arrested for marijuana last year than for all violent crimes combined,” said a statement that Niles-area Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan posted on Twitter. “It’s time to put an end to the social and economic injustices of our marijuana policy.”
All the state’s Republicans opposed the legislation, including Bainbridge Township Republican Rep. Dave Joyce, who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and has introduced a bill that would ensure that federal drug laws don’t apply to people whose behavior complies with the state or tribal cannabis laws where they’re located.
Joyce released a statement that said he believes Congress should clarify cannabis policy on the federal level and let states decide their own policies without fear of federal repercussions, but said Friday’s “partisan bill deprived us of the opportunity to do just that.”
The bill adopted by the House has no chance for passage in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, where its lead sponsor is soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris of California.
“There are several bipartisan proposals that have the chance to actually become law and help the thousands of businesses, workers, and patients that rely on the cannabis industry,” Joyce’s statement said. “By bringing the MORE Act up for a vote instead, Congress is failing to enact sensible and meaningful cannabis reforms.”
A statement from Holmes County Republican Rep. Bob Gibbs criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for “reconvening the House to vote on marijuana legislation” instead of taking care of more pressing priorities, like funding the government and reauthorizing aid for businesses that are in trouble because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Government funding runs out in 10 days, and we are voting on decriminalizing pot,” Gibbs said. “Half of the states set coronavirus hospitalization records last week, and the House is convening to legalize weed. She is wasting Congress’ time, leaving the American people to twist in the wind while the coronavirus pandemic just gets worse.”
Other Republicans said the bill would “open the floodgates” for advertising high potency dangerous products on television and social media, expose youths to the sale of edibles and flavored marijuana vapes, cited studies that linked marijuana to mental illness, and noted the Surgeon General has issued a warning about its use by adolescents and pregnant women.
A Democratic co-chair of the House Cannabis Caucus, Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, said the “American people” have already legalized marijuana, and legislation is needed because Congress has failed to “deal with a disastrous war on drugs,” failed people whose ailments can be eased by medical cannabis, and failed to allow research on procedures that could could be used to detect whether people are driving while impaired by marijuana, and failed to allow a $17 billion industry access to financial services.
“I’ve never met an American who feels that this industry should pay its taxes, with shopping bags full of $20 bills,” said Blumenauer. “Children in each of your districts can get a joint easier than they can get a six pack of beer, because no neighborhood drug dealer checks for I.D. — they don’t have a license to lose. That’s why we want to have a system that regulates, to protect our children.”
Nadler said that marijuana was widely used in the United States until the early 20th century, when its criminalization began “mainly because of misinformation and hysteria, based at least in part on racially-biased stereotypes connecting marijuana use and people of color, particularly African-Americans and Latinos.”
He said that in 1970, when President Nixon announced the War on Drugs and signed the Controlled Substances Act into law, the federal government placed marijuana on Schedule I, the most restrictive schedule that is attached to the most serious criminal penalties, where — unfairly and unjustifiably — it has remained ever since. As a consequence, he said thousands of individuals — overwhelmingly people of color — have been subjected to unjust federal prison sentences for marijuana offenses.
In addition to decriminalizing marijuana, he said his bill would address some of the negative impacts marijuana laws have had on minorities by establishing an Opportunity Trust Fund within the Treasury Department to fund Justice Department and Small Business Administration programs “to empower communities of color and those adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.”
“These programs would provide services to individuals, including job training, reentry services and substance use disorder services; provide funds for loans to assist small businesses that are owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals; and provide resources for programs that minimize barriers to marijuana licensing and employment for individuals adversely impacted by the War on Drugs,” Nadler said.
A statement from the National Cannabis Industry Association said Friday’s vote was the first time since marijuana was made federally illegal that either chamber of Congress has held a floor vote on — or approved — a bill to make the substance legal again.
It noted that a recent Gallup poll showed a record 68% of Americans support making cannabis legal, and that voters in Arizona, Montana, and New Jersey last month approved measures to regulate cannabis for adults, while Mississippians overwhelmingly approved a medical cannabis referendum and voters in South Dakota passed both adult use and medical initiatives.
“The symbolic and historical importance of the MORE Act passing in the House cannot be overstated,” said a statement from the organization’s co-founder and chief executive officer, Aaron Smith.
“This vote stands as a rebuke of failed and harmful prohibition policies, and represents a growing understanding of their racially and economically disparate impacts. 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.”