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WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House will vote on legalizing marijuana at the federal level for the first time in the chamber’s history later this month, a hurdle Democrats and advocates are celebrating as Congress grapples with a host of pressing issues before the November election.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would vote on the MORE Act during the week of Sept. 21. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., would remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances and expunge some marijuana-related criminal records, though it would still be up to states to pass their own regulations on the sale of marijuana.
“It’s about time,” Nadler told USA TODAY, calling it a “historic vote” marking the beginning of the end of the federal government’s “40-year, very misguided crusade” against marijuana.
Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, a group advocating for the decriminalization of drugs, said her organization was “thrilled,” saying the bill would “begin to repair some of the harms caused by the war on drugs in communities of color and low-income communities.”
The House’s vote comes as views of marijuana have changed in Washington and increased numbers of Americans support the legalization of the drug, whether for recreational or medicinal purposes. And while this bill is likely to fail in the Republican-majority Senate, advocates still saw the vote as a step forward.
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“I don’t even know if two years ago, I would have said that an act like this would have passed,” said Adam Goers, the vice president of corporate affairs at Columbia Care, which operates marijuana dispensaries across the country.
According to a 2019 Gallup survey, 66% of Americans supported legalization, though support did differ by party. More than three-quarters of Democrats said they supported legalization, as opposed to about half of Republicans.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., told USA TODAY, “the country has moved” its views on marijuana.
With Congress’ action, “there’s a recognition of where the states are, and we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to cannabis,” he said, referring to the states who have already legalized marijuana in some form. “And we just need to move forward with these pieces of legislation and get the federal and state laws to align with each other.”
Marijuana is currently regulated by a patchwork of laws at the state and federal levels, and Goers said legalization at the federal level would add “normalization” for businesses and states by legalizing marijuana at the federal level.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have legalized medical marijuana, but marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
Both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump declined to enforce federal prohibitions on marijuana against states that legalized it for recreational or medicinal use. As president, Obama supported the decriminalization of marijuana, though not its full legalization.
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Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has called for the decriminalization of marijuana and the expunging of convictions for marijuana use, though he expressed skepticism about the legalization of the drug during the Democratic presidential primary. Biden’s website says he supports the legalization of medical marijuana and would leave decisions on recreational use up to the states.
The continued difference in laws at the federal and state level, is complicated for dispensaries and other marijuana-related businesses.
Many banks are less willing to work with dispensaries and other marijuana companies because of the federal ban, according to a report from the nonpartisan National Conference on State Legislatures. The inaccessibility of banks means many marijuana-based businesses are cash-only and are more vulnerable to theft.
A blanket federal legalization of marijuana would help add clarity and allow more marijuana-based businesses to access capital and banking, Goers said.
Nadler said he was sure the bill would pass the House, telling USA TODAY the bill had “probably unanimous” Democratic support and “considerable Republican support” but was unsure of its fate in the Senate.
The bill has one Republican cosponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, and 86 Democratic cosponsors.
Speaking on his “Hot Takes with Matt Gaetz” podcast, Gaetz called the bill’s removal of marijuana from the federal controlled substance list “absolutely a step in the right direction.”
Gaetz criticized a provision in the bill that creates a 5% sales tax on the sale of marijuana to fund community programs benefiting people previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses. The Florida Republican dismissed it as a form of “reparations” but said he would still vote for the bill when it came to the House floor.
Nadler said the provision was about “making people whole from harms suffered directly as a result of the marijuana ban,” which he noted had disproportionately affected racial minorities.
An ACLU report analyzing marijuana-related arrests from 2010 to 2018 found that Black people were 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the Democratic vice presidential nominee, introduced the Senate’s version of the bill, though it has not made any progress beyond the Senate Committee on Finance and has no Republican cosponsors.
Republican Finance Committee spokesperson Michael Zona told USA TODAY there was “no plan” to move forward on the Senate bill.
Despite the bill’s odds in the Senate, advocates were still pleased. The Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce called the planned vote the “greatest federal cannabis reform accomplishment in over 80 years.”
The vote on legalizing marijuana finds itself in the middle of a crowded legislative calendar and a bitterly divided Congress with only three weeks of session to pass crucial legislation before the Nov. 3 election. Congressional leaders and Trump’s White House appear no closer to a deal on more coronavirus relief than they were a month ago as millions struggle financially from the pandemic. Plus, the entire federal government shuts down if the two sides don’t pass a funding plan by the end of the month.
One House Republican expressed skepticism about the timing of the bill amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the midst of an increase in opioid addiction deaths during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems strange that the focus of House majority leadership would be to fully legalize marijuana, a known gateway drug to opioid addiction,” Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said in a statement. Harris criticized the bill for legalizing recreational marijuana and using “hard-earned taxpayer dollars to help subsidize the marijuana industry.”
A provision originally authored by Perlmutter allowing marijuana businesses to access banks was included in House Democrats’ $3.4 trillion COVID-19 relief package, but its inclusion was derided by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as part of “strange new special-interest carveouts for the marijuana industry” and is unlikely to be included in any final COVID-19 relief package.
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