In a vote rich with historic importance, the House of Representatives has voted to decriminalize cannabis, finally siding with most Americans who have rejected prohibitionist policies and approve of the legalization of the plant.
On Friday, the House voted by 268-164 to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019, marking the first time that either chamber of the bicameral Congress has put decriminalization to the vote.
The bipartisan bill sponsored by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has been touted as the most comprehensive federal cannabis reform legislation ever introduced and comes after over half a century of a failed “war on drugs” that fueled mass incarceration and other collateral damage for poor communities.
However, the approval of the bill is largely a symbolic victory for cannabis legalization and criminal justice reform advocates, with Senate Republicans appearing firm in their stance that they won’t approve of the measure.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blasted the bill on Twitter, remarking earlier this year on a study about diversity within the cannabis industry: “This is their effort at coronavirus relief?”
Democrats, on the other hand, have said that the move to legalize weed will be a boon for local budgets and will end the historic injustice of the so-called “war on drugs,” which has negatively impacted poor communities of color in a disproportionate manner. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a September statement that “The MORE Act remains a critical component of House Democrats’ plan for addressing systemic racism and advancing criminal justice reform.”
Voters in various states have also largely approved the legalization of medical or recreational cannabis across the country, with voters in four states – Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota – voting to legalize in the 2020 election. 15 states now allow the recreational use of the plant, while 38 states allow medical marijuana. The MORE Act had the support of both liberals and libertarian-leaning conservatives in the House who see the responsible use of cannabis as a personal right, as well as other Republicans who believe that it should be up to the states to regulate the dispensation of the plant without the interference or control of federal authorities.
“We’re not rushing to legalize marijuana. The American people have already done that,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (OR-D), one of the chief architects of the bill, prior to the House floor vote on Friday morning. “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 … It’s time for Congress to step up and do its part. We need to catch up with the rest of the American people.”
A vote on the MORE Act had initially been set for September, but the vote was delayed as Congress wrangled over the passage of a coronavirus aid bill before moving on to addressing legalization. “Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime,” Vice President-elect Harris said in a 2019 press release. “We need to start regulating marijuana, and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives. As marijuana becomes legal across the country, we must make sure everyone — especially communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs — has a real opportunity to participate in this growing industry.”The MORE Act would comprehensively decriminalize cannabis on a federal level by de-scheduling it from the Controlled Substances Act – where it is absurdly classified as a Schedule 1 drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” alongside heroin – and opens the door to states setting their own policies regulating the commerce and consumption of the plant. A major highlight of the bill includes expungements of federal convictions for a range of low-level cannabis offenders, removing a barrier that bars access to voting, employment, professional licenses, housing, and even the ability to adopt a child. States would be incentivized to also follow suit. The legislation would also provide for re-sentencing and block federal agencies from denying public benefits and security clearances over past cannabis convictions, while immigrants would no longer be denied citizenship over marijuana. The MORE Act would also levy a 5% sales tax on commercial cannabis, and investing in grant programs addressing the needs of communities who have suffered serious negative impacts from the “War on Drugs,” especially those communities of color that have suffered disproportionate over-policing and mass incarceration.
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