The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House passes bill decriminalizing marijuana; Senate fortunes unclear

(Richard Vogel/AP)
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The House on Friday passed legislation that would remove marijuana from the federal schedule of controlled substances, a move that comes as an increasing number of states have passed decriminalization laws.

The measure, H.R. 3617, is known as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or the MORE Act. The House passed similar legislation in December 2020, but it was not brought up for a vote in the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans at the time.

Friday’s 220-to-204 vote largely took place along partisan lines, with only three Republicans joining most Democrats to back the legislation. Two Democrats voted “no.”

It remains unclear whether the latest measure will receive a vote in the Senate. The White House has not yet issued a statement on whether President Biden supports the legislation. A group of Senate Democrats including Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) is expected to release draft marijuana legislation later this month.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) spoke on the House floor on April 1 about the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a statement Friday afternoon, Schumer applauded the House passage of the MORE Act, noting his own support for decriminalization and declaring that “the time has come for comprehensive reform of federal cannabis laws.” He added that he, Booker and Wyden plan to introduce their legislation “very soon.”

“Of course, we will need Republicans to pass a legalization bill in the Senate, and we will be working hard to try and get them,” Schumer said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a regular press briefing Friday afternoon that Biden “agrees that we need to rethink our approach” to marijuana laws. She did not indicate whether he supports the House-passed legislation.

“We look forward to working with Congress to achieve our shared goals and will continue having discussions with them about this objective,” Psaki said.

In addition to eliminating criminal penalties for the manufacture, distribution or possession of marijuana, the MORE Act would provide for the regulation and taxation of legal cannabis sales. It also would provide for the expungement of federal marijuana convictions dating to 1971 and bar the denial of federal public benefits or security clearances on the basis of marijuana offenses.

The past decade has seen a significant shift in public attitudes toward marijuana, with all but a handful of states having changed their laws. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana use. Eighteen states and the District allow nonmedical use. The drug has also become a jobs creator, with legal cannabis sales totaling $19 billion in 2020 and expected to reach $41 billion by 2025.

Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level would not end the vast majority of cannabis-use prosecutions, which occur in state courts. But it would end troublesome conflicts between state and federal law for those states that have loosened pot restrictions and would greatly ease commerce for the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.

Public opinion appears to be in line with the state-level electoral trend. In late 2020, a Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans said the use of marijuana should be legal, the highest support for marijuana legalization since the polling organization first asked in 1969.

The three Republicans voting “yes” on Friday were Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Brian Mast (Fla.) and Tom McClintock (Calif.). The two Democrats voting “no” were Reps. Henry Cuellar (Tex.) and Chris Pappas (N.H.).

In remarks on the House floor Friday morning, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) argued that the legislation would help repair the damage done by the war on drugs and the country’s “failed policy of marijuana prohibition, which has led to the shattering of so many lives, primarily Black and brown people.”

“Make no mistake: Yes, it is a racial justice bill,” Lee said. “According to the ACLU, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis and related crimes than White Americans, despite equal rates of use. These arrests can have a detrimental impact on a person’s quality of life and can lead to difficulty finding employment, securing housing and accessing other benefits.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the legislation’s main sponsor, said his bill “would set a new path forward and would begin to correct some of the injustices of the last 50 years.”

“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 both unwise and unjust,” he said.

Republicans countered by dismissing the legislation as a waste of time and arguing that Democrats should instead be addressing other issues such as inflation, crime and gas prices.

“The left will not let the Democrats do what needs to be done to help the inflation problem, the energy problem, the illegal immigration problem on our southern border, so what do they do? They legalize drugs. Wow. Wow. This is wrong and everybody knows it. … Let’s focus on the things that matter,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said.

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