The measure is not expected to pass into law, and, because of political skittishness, it was voted on only after the November election and more than a year after it emerged from committee. But the House took a stand at a moment of increasing momentum, with voters last month opting to liberalize marijuana laws in five states — including three that President Trump won handily.
Friday’s vote, however, was largely along party lines, with Democrats voting overwhelmingly to support the federal decriminalization bill and all but five Republicans opposing it.
“We are not rushing to legalize marijuana — the American people have already done that. We are here because Congress has failed to deal with a disastrous war on drugs and do its part for the over 50 million regular marijuana users in every one of your districts,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a longtime liberalization advocate. “We need to catch up with the rest of the American people.”
Top Republicans — including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — made derisive public comments about the bill this week, painting the measure as a frivolous diversion from the task of funding the federal government and delivering a new round of emergency coronavirus aid to Americans.
One headline from McConnell: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decides to “puff, puff, pass” on emergency coronavirus relief.
“It’s just unbelievable how tone-deaf they are to these small businesses and the jobs, the families that are tied to them,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a Fox News Channel interview Thursday, slamming Democratic leaders for holding the vote.
But some are warning that Republicans risk finding themselves out of step with their own voters, who are increasingly embracing the loosening of marijuana restrictions — including outright legalization.
On Election Day in South Dakota, for instance, 54 percent of voters opted to legalize marijuana, while only 36 percent of voters chose the Democratic presidential ticket. In Montana, the 57 percent who voted to legalize marijuana nearly matched the number who voted to reelect Trump. And Mississippi became the first state in the Deep South to legalize marijuana for medical use, with 62 percent of voters approving a ballot measure in a state where Trump won 58 percent of the vote.
Fifteen states have legalized recreational cannabis to some degree, and 36 states have approved medical marijuana programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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 October, Gallup 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.
While overwhelming proportions of Democrats and independents supported legalization, Republicans were split: 52 percent for legalization and 48 percent against — figures that have changed only slightly in recent years.
But that near 50-50 split among Republican voters is not even close to being mirrored in the GOP lawmaker ranks. Only two of 17 House Republicans, Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Tom McClintock (Calif.), supported the bill in the Judiciary Committee.
The prospects of winning Republican support for the House bill were complicated by some of its provisions — such as the establishment of a 5 percent federal excise tax that would in part fund programs for “individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs,” job training, legal aid in seeking to expunge marijuana convictions, and mentoring programs.
The bill also provides for the expungement of federal marijuana convictions dating to 1971 and bars the denial of federal public benefits or security clearances on the basis of marijuana offenses.
That has turned off some libertarian-minded Republicans who might otherwise support eliminating marijuana restrictions. “Tax and spend,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (Ky.), who said he would have considered voting for the bill had Democratic leaders allowed a vote on an amendment to eliminate the tax component.
Gaetz said Friday that he was voting for the bill despite the flaws. “The federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana,” he said. “My Republican colleagues today will make a number of arguments against this bill, but those arguments are overwhelmingly losing with the American people.”
Gaetz is among a small group of Republicans who say publicly that it is a matter of political malpractice that the party has not taken a softer line on federal marijuana laws.
“The leadership is sort of stuck,” said Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who went on to allude to the infamous 1936 prohibitionist film “Reefer Madness.” “I always jokingly say … they were all in the theater watching. And they’re still sort of of this belief that marijuana is going to destroy the world somehow.”
Pro-pot activists are facing another major setback in winning support in the Republican ranks: the Nov. 3 loss of Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who emerged as an especially fervent advocate for the cannabis industry in the Republican ranks. It is unclear who — beyond Paul, a libertarian often estranged from his party’s leadership — might take up the mantle.
Still, advocates of marijuana legalization say the passage of the bill in the House is a watershed moment in the long struggle to roll back marijuana prohibition, and many see it as only a matter of time before it becomes an issue of bipartisan concern.
Maritza Perez of Drug Policy Alliance said the partisan nature of the marijuana debate on Capitol Hill reflects the deeply divided nature of Congress rather than an intractable difference on policy.
“The tide is really turning on this issue, and I think it’s just something the government can’t ignore anymore,” said Perez, her organization’s director of national affairs. “Congress is going to have to come to the table and address this.”
The imperatives go beyond the political shift, according to Randal John Meyer, the executive director of the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce, who said businesses in states that have legalized marijuana are facing an increasingly incoherent legal and regulatory framework.
“It’s reached a critical tipping point where the basics of letting someone work and do their job consistent with state law and state licenses runs against the federal prohibitionist stance of Republicans,” said Meyer, a former aide to Paul. “That tension can’t hold; it’s reaching past the breaking point.”
Republicans, he added, will find their anti-pot stance to be increasingly at odds with their more fundamental pro-business, anti-regulation tenets. Referring to the descheduling effort, he said, “The Democratic Party is trying to actually generate new business and new industry with this and to help recover the economy.”
But interviews with several Republican lawmakers revealed a fundamental reluctance to loosen pot restrictions — even in states where voters have endorsed legalization measures.
In Arizona last month, 60 percent of voters chose to pursue legalization, but Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said she was not inclined to loosen federal laws, given her concerns about addiction after speaking to teens in addiction recovery programs.
“Every one of them — they said they started by using marijuana,” she said. ‘I am not saying that every person that smokes marijuana is going to be addicted to harder drugs, but I am concerned that we have so much costs associated with addiction in our country.”
“With all that’s going on in our world, I just don’t necessarily think this is the time,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), who represents a state where two-thirds of voters chose last month to legalize marijuana. “There are certain points to be made. But the bottom line is my concern for urban areas, concern for kids.”
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who represents a state where cannabis use has been legal for nearly seven years, said he backed easing some of the commercial restrictions on the pot industry. But, he said, “going as far as this bill goes is going to make sense someday. I’m not sure it makes sense right now.”
Advocates say they plan to redouble their efforts in the new Congress, but a much tighter Democratic majority could mean the bill that was passed Friday — the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act — might not come up again in the House, let alone in the Senate, where McConnell has expressed firm opposition to legalizing pot. But Democratic wins in the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections for the U.S. Senate would sideline McConnell and could open a narrow window for compromise action.
Perez said that the trend is clear and that more Republicans are bound to change their views: “I really do believe that November’s elections can help really start to shift some of these members, realizing that this is going to happen and they need to get on board.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.