The United States House of Representatives voted on Friday to decriminalise cannabis at the federal level, but the legislation is not expected to advance further as long as the Senate remains in Republican hands.
It was the first time either chamber of Congress has voted to end the federal ban on cannabis since the drug was listed as a “controlled substance” in 1970.
Fifteen US states and the District of Columbia have legalised recreational use of cannabis, and more than 30 states allow some form of the drug for medicinal purposes.
But the federal ban on the drug persists, which creates conflicts with state laws and limits cannabis companies’ access to banking services and funding.
The Democratic-majority House voted 228-164, largely along party lines, to lift the federal prohibition on Friday.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, is an opponent of the change, meaning a decriminalisation proposal is unlikely to get to the Senate unless Democrats manage to win two runoff elections in the state of Georgia.
Those votes, set for January 5, would give Democrats control of the next Senate.
The House bill passed on Friday would allow states to regulate cannabis, Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat and co-chairman of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said during a debate.
“This legislation does not legalise cannabis across the country. It stops the federal government from interfering with what states have decided to do,” he said.
‘Weed over workers’
Republicans called the bill a hollow political gesture, however, and mocked Democrats for bringing it up at a time when thousands of Americans are dying from COVID-19.
Republican Representative Debbie Lesko said she found it incredible that Democrats were talking about “legalising marijuana” instead of focusing on passing more relief from the pandemic. “Sometimes I think that the world is turned upside down,” she said.
“With all the challenges America has right now, [Republicans] think COVID relief should be on the floor,” added House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican legislator from California.
— National Cannabis Industry Association (@NCIAorg) December 4, 2020
“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 said.
Democrats said they can work on COVID-19 relief and cannabis reform at the same time and noted that the House passed a major pandemic relief bill in May that has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Meanwhile, supporters say the bill would help reverse adverse effects of the decades-long “war on drugs” by removing cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances while allowing states to set their own rules.
The bill would also allocate money from a 5 percent tax on cannabis products to address the needs of groups and communities harmed by the drug war and provide for the expungement of federal marijuana convictions and arrests.
“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 Representative Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and 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.”
Representative Barbara Lee, who is Black, called it a long overdue racial justice measure and said the bill is the product of years of work by a range of advocates.
It is “a major step toward ending the unjust war on drugs and racial inequities that are central to these laws”, Lee said.
The vote comes at a time when most Americans live in states where cannabis 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 cannabis companies because it remains illegal at the federal level.
Huge news! The US House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act – Historic step toward a rights-respecting drug policy. #MOREAct pic.twitter.com/VYOmvueItj
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) December 4, 2020
Four states, including New Jersey and Arizona, passed referendums allowing recreational cannabis.
Voters also made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalise possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.