Employees trim green buds at the NUG cannabis company headquarters in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The House just voted to decriminalize cannabis, a historic symbolic moment marking Congress’s belated move towards embracing the views held by a large majority of Americans.
The House voted to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act on Friday, the first time either chamber of Congress has ever voted on marijuana decriminalization.
The final vote was 228-164, with most Democrats joined by 5 Republicans and an independent to pass the legislation. Most Republicans and six Democrats opposed the bill.
The bill is a major symbolic victory for marijuana rights advocates and criminal justice reform. But it’s likely not going anywhere anywhere soon: Senate Republicans have indicated there’s no appetite to pass the measure.
While federal law on marijuana has been largely stagnant in recent decades, voters have been moving hard towards support of legalization across the country. Voters in four more states voted to legalize marijuana in the 2020 election—Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota—bringing the total number of states where marijuana is legal to 15, both red and blue states. Fully 38 states now allow medical marijuana, something that is still illegal at the federal level.
That’s a rapid shift: A decade ago, recreational marijuana was illegal in all 50 states.
Americans support marijuana legalization by a two-to-one margin, according to polls, numbers that have almost completely flipped in the past two decades. That support includes majorities of Republicans and vast majorities of Democrats and independents.
“We’re not rushing to legalize marijuana. The American people have already done that. We’re here because Congress has failed to deal with a disastrous war on drugs and do its part for the over 15 million marijuana users in every one of your districts,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat and one of the bill’s chief architects, during House floor debate Friday morning before the vote. “It’s time for Congress to step up and do its part. We need to catch up with the rest of the American people.”
Democrats had initially planned to vote on the bill in September, with the goal of creating enthusiasm from pro-pot voters to turn out during the elections, but House leaders decided to delay it out of worries that it could backfire on some swing-state members.
The bill would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, allowing states to regulate it as they see fit. It would also expunge past convictions for marijuana possession and require resentencing for those in prison for pot convictions. It creates a federal tax on marijuana sales that would begin at 5 percent, funds which advocates say would be used to reinvest in communities that have suffered from the war on drugs.
The bill would also ban government agencies from using marijuana as a reason to deny people federally subsidized housing or to adversely impact their immigration status.
In spite of strong evidence of its medicinal properties, marijuana remains a schedule I drug along with hard drugs like heroin.
The bill comes just days after the United Nations, for the first time, recognized the medicinal properties of cannabis following a vote by the body.