WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The U.S. House of Representatives Friday passed a historic bill that would decriminalize cannabis, ending a federal ban and creating potential to expunge related criminal records.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would remove marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances as well as eliminate criminal action for people who distribute or possess marijuana.
The bill would also establish a trust fund to support programs and services for individuals and businesses in communities impacted by the war on drugs.
The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D.-NY. The bill passed the House Friday and is now moving to the Senate for a vote. The House is controlled by Democrats whereas the Senate has a Republican majority.
Opponents, mostly Republicans, called the bill a hollow political gesture and criticized Democrats for bringing it up at a time when thousands of Americans are dying from the coronavirus pandemic.
“With all the challenges America has right now, (Republicans) think COVID relief should be on the floor, but instead, the Democrats put cats and cannabis” on the House floor, said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “They’re picking weed over the workers. They’re picking marijuana over (providing) the much-needed money we need to go forward″ to address the pandemic.
McCarthy’s comment about cats referred to a separate bill approved by the House to ban private ownership of big cats such as lions and tigers, a measure boosted by the Netflix series “Tiger King.″ That bill, approved by the House on Thursday, would allow most private zoos to keep their tigers and other species but would prohibit most public contact with the animals.
Democrats said they can work on COVID-19 relief and marijuana reform at the same time and noted that the House passed a major pandemic relief bill in May that has languished in the Senate.
“For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health,″ said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a key sponsor of the bill. “Whatever one’s views are on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, the policy of arrests, prosecution and incarceration at the federal level has proven unwise and unjust.″
Drug reform advocates called the House vote historic, noting it is the first time comprehensive legislation to decriminalize marijuana has passed the full House or Senate.
“The criminalization of marijuana is a cornerstone of the racist war on drugs. Even after a decade of reform victories, one person was arrested nearly every minute last year for simply possessing marijuana,” said Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group. “Today the House took the most powerful step forward to address that shameful legacy.”
The vote comes at a time when most Americans live in states where marijuana is legal in some form, and lawmakers from both parties agreed that national cannabis policy has lagged woefully behind changes at the state level. That divide has created a host of problems — loans and other banking services, for example, are hard to get for many marijuana companies because pot remains illegal at the federal level.
Four states, including New Jersey and Arizona, passed referenda allowing recreational cannabis this year. Voters made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states and four territories have approved measures to regulate cannabis for medical use. Fifteen states and three territories have approved regulated cannabis for adult-use.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., called the House bill an important racial justice measure. The bill “is a major step, mind you, a major step toward ending the unjust war on drugs and racial inequities that are central to these laws,″ said Lee, who is African American.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement in part, “Today, with the bipartisan MORE Act, the House has proudly passed one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history. This momentous step helps end the devastating injustices of the criminalization of marijuana that have disproportionately impacted low income communities and communities of color, and reflects the overwhelming will of the American people — 47 states have recently reformed marijuana laws, with California at the helm of this justice effort.”
The bill, which passed 228-164, now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it is unlikely to advance. A related bill that would give pot businesses access to traditional banking services has languished in the Senate after being approved by the House last year.
Five Republicans supported the bill: Reps. Matt Gaetz and Brian Mast of Florida; Tom McClintock of California, Denver Riggleman of Virginia and Don Young of Alaska.
Six Democrats opposed it: Reps. Cheri Bustos and Daniel Lipinski of Illinois; Collin Peterson of Minnesota; Chris Pappas of New Hampshire; Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania; and Henry Cuellar of Texas.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, said GOP lawmakers have been pushing for weeks to bring up a bill that allows small businesses to receive another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans. Many small businesses are struggling or have closed as a result of the pandemic.
Instead of allowing a vote on the GOP bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is “actually focused more on legalizing pot,” Scalise said. ”It’s just unbelievable how tone deaf (Democrats) are to these small businesses and the jobs, the families that are tied to them.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also criticized the bill, saying in a floor speech that “the House of Representatives is spending this week on pressing issues like marijuana. You know, serious and important legislation befitting this national crisis.”
The Big Cat Public Safety Act also is unlikely to move forward in the Senate. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a tweet that Democrats were moving to “Prosecute Tiger King” rather than address issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Carole Baskin, whose animal rescue organization is featured in the Netflix series, said the legislation would culminate a decades-long effort to end abuse of tiger cubs and other big cats, and protect the public and first responders from injuries and death.
On the global scale, U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted Wednesday to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from a category of the world’s most dangerous drugs, which could impact the global medical marijuana industry.
The Vienna-based U.N. agency said in a statement that it had voted 27-25, with one abstention, to follow the World Health Organization’s recommendation to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, where it was listed with heroin and several other opioids.
Wednesday’s vote therefore does not clear U.N. member nations to legalize cannabis under the international drug control system. Canada and Uruguay have legalized the sale and use of cannabis for recreational purposes, but many countries around the world have decriminalized marijuana possession.
You can read the full proposed bill below: