The US House of Representatives has passed a bill to decriminalise cannabis at the national level for the first time.
It calls for removing cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances and erasing certain federal convictions.
It also supports reinvestment in communities adversely impacted by the decades-long “war on drugs”.
The bill is very unlikely to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (More) Act was passed in the lower chamber 228 to 164 on Friday afternoon, with five Republicans – and one independent – supporting the measure.
To become law, the bill needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the president. If that happens, it could help bridge a major disconnect between national and state drug policy in the US.
Why is cannabis not legal federally?
Cannabis is still prohibited by the 1970 federal drug policy known as the Controlled Substances Act and classed as a Schedule I narcotic – defined as having no medical value and a high potential for abuse – but states have made their own laws relating to the drug.
One in three Americans currently live in states where cannabis is legal for adult use, despite the federal prohibition.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have passed ballot measures or initiatives that allow the recreational use of cannabis by anyone over the age of 21.
In addition, 38 states have passed measures that allow its use for medicinal purposes.
Last month, voters in three states – Arizona, Montana and New Jersey – overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to legalise recreational use, with voters in Mississippi supporting its medicinal use. South Dakota, a traditionally conservative state, made history when voters there simultaneously backed initiatives for the medicinal and recreational use of the drug.
Support for federal cannabis legalisation is now at an all-time high, with a Gallup poll last month showing more than two-thirds of American adults support it.
Several lawmakers took to the House floor ahead of the vote, arguing the bill had less to do with legalising marijuana and more to do with how the enforcement of cannabis prohibition has hurt communities of colour, leaving behind “a legacy of racial and ethnic injustices”.
Black Americans are more than three times as likely to be arrested for cannabis-related offences as white Americans, despite similar rates of usage, according to a study last year from the American Civil Liberties Union.
What does the bill propose?
It includes measures to expunge the federal criminal records of those charged or convicted for non-violent cannabis offenses and provide cannabis business owners easier access to grants or loans. It would also tax cannabis retail sales and create a trust fund to reinvest in job training and other initiatives for communities of colour harmed by the drug war.
“We’re not rushing to legalise marijuana. The American people have already done that,” said Democrat Earl Blumenauer, from Oregon, who is the founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and an original sponsor of the bill.
“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 in every one of your districts.”
The bill was drafted in co-ordination with several cannabis justice advocates.
What reaction has there been?
Several Republican lawmakers said the bill had troubling implications that could be potentially harmful to American youth. Greg Murphy, from North Carolina, said the drug was “one of the most abused substances on the planet”.
Others called the vote a “waste of time”, complaining that they should have instead focused on Covid relief.
Cannabis reform advocates, however, hailed the vote as “historic” and “long overdue”.
It came as the National Basketball Association (NBA) released a statement announcing it would suspend random cannabis testing of its players for the 2020-21 season.
President-elect Joe Biden has expressed a desire to end federal prohibition through decriminalisation, but neither Senate Republican leadership nor current president Donald Trump have indicated support for the legislation to become law. If Republicans win one or both Senate runoff elections in Georgia next month, the party will retain its majority in the upper chamber.
Following the passage of the House bill, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer urged his colleagues to support the reforms: “These bills are part of a broader movement to address inequities in criminal justice, business and more. Today’s bipartisan vote shows just how far that movement has come.”
Adding a rare voice of support from across the aisle, Matt Gaetz of Florida – the lone Republican co-sponsor of the bill – said: “The federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana for a generation… If we were measuring the success of the war on drugs, drugs have won.”
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.
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 coronavirusrelief, 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.”
- Thanks for reading The Times.
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.”