Making History, House Votes to Decriminalize Pot

Marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The fate of federal marijuana decriminalization now lies with the Senate after the House passed a bill Friday aimed at giving states the ability to set their own cannabis laws.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or MORE Act, passed largely along party lines in a 228-164 vote after lawmakers teed up the bill Thursday. It is the first time a chamber of Congress has voted to federally decriminalize pot.

The MORE Act removes the drug from being listed on the Controlled Substances Act and stamps cannabis sales with a 5% federal tax. It also provides a path for those with marijuana convictions to expunge and seal their federal charges and gives dispensaries access to banking services.

The House’s only Independent member, Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, sided with Democrats, while six Democrats said no to the proposal and five Republicans bucked their party to approve decriminalization.

The bill would need to clear the Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump to become law before the end of the current Congress, but neither is expected to happen.

From the House floor, Democrats denounced the disproportionate impact of marijuana criminalization on communities of color.

Congressman Hank Johnson said pot prohibition laws “resulted in the advent of the prison-industrial complex,” consuming “the lives of countless individuals and families” due to “government-sponsored crony capitalism” that prioritizes profits and policies of putting people in prison rather than addressing drug abuse as a public health issue.

“The criminalization of marijuana was used to disenfranchise an entire generation of Black men and women,” the Georgia Democrat said.  

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas said Democrats “want a government structure that saves lives,” pointing to the death of one of her constituents last week due to a marijuana sale gone wrong. She also said the bill is an important part of the racial justice movement.

“The numbers are staggering, but most of all the numbers are staggering with the imbalance of prosecution of African Americans and people of Latinx, Hispanic heritage,” Jackson Lee said of cannabis convictions. “What an imbalance. What a massive infusion of incarceration across this nation.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said when former President Richard Nixon declared drugs America’s public enemy number one, there were only 200,000 total people incarcerated in the U.S. Now there are 2.3 million, with the majority of those inmates Black or Latino, he said.

“Marijuana use is either socially acceptable behavior or its criminal conduct,” Jeffries said. “But it can’t be socially acceptable behavior in some neighborhoods and criminal conduct in other neighborhoods, when the dividing line is race.”

Republicans, including North Carolina Congressman Greg Murphy, said they were empathetic to Americans aided by medicinal marijuana but railed against recreational legalization, saying cannabis is a gateway drug responsible for adverse health effects.

“I am sympathetic to those who use marijuana for pain relief, I really am,” Murphy said. “It has been clinically proven to have activity in this area. That said, a July 2020 study from the National Library of Medicine concluded that the THC component of cannabis can be the main culprit in psychosis and schizophrenia.”

Congresswoman Debbie Lesko, an Arizona Republican, introduced an amendment to the bill that would have required federal employees to be subject to drug tests for cannabis use. She said it is common practice test certain employees – construction or warehouse workers, for example – for marijuana.

“By removing marijuana from the list of scheduled substances in the Controlled Substances Act, the underlying bill will place unnecessary burdens on private employers and will needlessly jeopardize workplace and public safety and health,” she said.

But Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said existing provisions in the MORE Act require testing for federal employees “in safety-sensitive transportation positions.”

“There is no good test for impairment,” Blumenauer said. “Right now, I have heard from employers across the country who are deeply concerned because as they test and there’s a trace of marijuana in the system, it continues for 30 days, long after there is any impairment.”

He added, “We are having people’s jobs jeopardized because we haven’t done the research that would allow us to have a good test.”

Lesko’s amendment was ultimately defeated, but 11 Democrats sided with their Republican colleagues on adding the provision to the bill.

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