The US House of Representatives took the historic step of approving a bill that would federally decriminalize cannabis.
The House vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act – which would remove marijuana from the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA) – marks the first time a chamber of Congress has considered legislation to end the federal prohibition of cannabis.
“Millions of Americans’ lives have been upended as a result of convictions for possessing small amounts of marijuana, and the racial disparities in conviction rates for those offenses are as shocking as they are unjust,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in a statement following the vote. “That’s why we passed the MORE Act today.”
The vote largely unfolded along partisan lines with 222 Democrats, five Republicans and an Independent supporting the measure, while 158 Republicans and six Democrats opposed it.
Though the bill stands little hope of passing the Senate if it remains under Republican control, it would undoubtedly more closely align federal and state marijuana policies. Since the November elections when five states approved marijuana legalization ballot measures, 15 states and Washington, DC permit adult-use cannabis, while a further 21 states permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Once the new voter-approved laws take effect, more than a third of Americans will live in a jurisdiction where the recreational use of marijuana is legal, while yet more states including New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut consider the measure.
As well as removing cannabis from the CSA, the MORE Act would allow states to determine whether or not to establish a legal marijuana industry. If they decide to do so, the bill would establish a five percent tax on retail sales to be invested in communities and individuals most harmed by the federal marijuana prohibition. These investments would include job training, legal aid and funding substance abuse programs, as well as providing access to capital for minority-owned and economically disadvantaged businesses. The MORE Act would also facilitate expungement of cannabis-related federal convictions and establish sentencing review hearings for federal marijuana offenses.
President-elect Joe Biden has a troubling history of spearheading punitive anti-drug laws as a senator, but since throwing his hat into the ring as a Democratic presidential candidate he’s come out in favor of various incremental cannabis reforms and supported the right of states to set their own marijuana policies. He still, however, stops short of embracing full marijuana legalization, unlike the vast majority of his party.
Biden’s vice president-elect Kamala Harris co-sponsors the Senate companion of the MORE Act, but it was rejected by a Senate Finance Committee and is unlikely to gain traction while the Republicans retain control of the other chamber of congress.
“The House of Representatives is spending this week on pressing issues like marijuana. You know, serious and important legislation befitting this national crisis,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after the House vote, in reference to the pending Covid-19 stimulus bill that congressional leaders have still not agreed upon.
NORML’s Executive Director Erik Altieri welcomed the House vote as a first step toward substantive federal marijuana reform next year, when the Biden administration assumes office.
“By going on the record with this vote, House members have set the stage for a much-needed legislative showdown in 2021 when we will have the Biden administration in office — one that has publicly expressed an appetite for advancing the restorative justice remedies outlined in the MORE Act,” Altieri said. “We are primed and ready for this legislative debate and we expect, ultimately, to win it.”