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House will vote on federal marijuana legalization for the first time, bill’s future in Senate uncertain

President Trump talked about Kenosha and how well it’s doing before his planned visit, but Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is urging him to ‘reconsider’ after a week of unrest. Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House will vote on legalizing marijuana at the federal level for the first time in the chamber’s history later this month, a hurdle Democrats and advocates are celebrating as Congress grapples with a host of pressing issues before the November election.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would vote on the MORE Act during the week of Sept. 21. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., would remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances and expunge some marijuana-related criminal records, though it would still be up to states to pass their own regulations on the sale of marijuana.

“It’s about time,” Nadler told USA TODAY, calling it a “historic vote” marking the beginning of the end of the federal government’s “40-year, very misguided crusade” against marijuana.

Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, a group advocating for the decriminalization of drugs, said her organization was “thrilled,” saying the bill would “begin to repair some of the harms caused by the war on drugs in communities of color and low-income communities.”

The House’s vote comes as views of marijuana have changed in Washington and increased numbers of Americans support the legalization of the drug, whether for recreational or medicinal purposes. And while this bill is likely to fail in the Republican-majority Senate, advocates still saw the vote as a step forward.

“I don’t even know if two years ago, I would have said that an act like this would have passed,” said Adam Goers, the vice president of corporate affairs at Columbia Care, which operates marijuana dispensaries across the country.

According to a 2019 Gallup survey, 66% of Americans supported legalization, though support did differ by party. More than three-quarters of Democrats said they supported legalization, as opposed to about half of Republicans.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., told USA TODAY, “the country has moved” its views on marijuana.

With Congress’ action, “there’s a recognition of where the states are, and we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to cannabis,” he said, referring to the states who have already legalized marijuana in some form. “And we just need to move forward with these pieces of legislation and get the federal and state laws to align with each other.”

Marijuana is currently regulated by a patchwork of laws at the state and federal levels, and Goers said legalization at the federal level would add “normalization” for businesses and states by legalizing marijuana at the federal level.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have legalized medical marijuana, but marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

Both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump declined to enforce federal prohibitions on marijuana against states that legalized it for recreational or medicinal use. As president, Obama supported the decriminalization of marijuana, though not its full legalization.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has called for the decriminalization of marijuana and the expunging of convictions for marijuana use, though he expressed skepticism about the legalization of the drug during the Democratic presidential primary. Biden’s website says he supports the legalization of medical marijuana and would leave decisions on recreational use up to the states.

The continued difference in laws at the federal and state level, is complicated for dispensaries and other marijuana-related businesses.

Many banks are less willing to work with dispensaries and other marijuana companies because of the federal ban, according to a report from the nonpartisan National Conference on State Legislatures. The inaccessibility of banks means many marijuana-based businesses are cash-only and are more vulnerable to theft.

A blanket federal legalization of marijuana would help add clarity and allow more marijuana-based businesses to access capital and banking, Goers said.

Nadler said he was sure the bill would pass the House, telling USA TODAY the bill had “probably unanimous” Democratic support and “considerable Republican support” but was unsure of its fate in the Senate.

The bill has one Republican cosponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, and 86 Democratic cosponsors.

For too long marijuana laws have been selectively enforced against people of color. I look forward to voting in support of the MORE Act which will expunge previous federal marijuana convictions and allow states to legalize marijuana. https://t.co/mTE6U1pNzi

Speaking on his “Hot Takes with Matt Gaetz” podcast, Gaetz called the bill’s removal of marijuana from the federal controlled substance list “absolutely a step in the right direction.”

Gaetz criticized a provision in the bill that creates a 5% sales tax on the sale of marijuana to fund community programs benefiting people previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses. The Florida Republican dismissed it as a form of “reparations” but said he would still vote for the bill when it came to the House floor.

Nadler said the provision was about “making people whole from harms suffered directly as a result of the marijuana ban,” which he noted had disproportionately affected racial minorities.

An ACLU report analyzing marijuana-related arrests from 2010 to 2018 found that Black people were 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the Democratic vice presidential nominee, introduced the Senate’s version of the bill, though it has not made any progress beyond the Senate Committee on Finance and has no Republican cosponsors.

Republican Finance Committee spokesperson Michael Zona told USA TODAY there was “no plan” to move forward on the Senate bill.

Despite the bill’s odds in the Senate, advocates were still pleased. The Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce called the planned vote the “greatest federal cannabis reform accomplishment in over 80 years.”

The vote on legalizing marijuana finds itself in the middle of a crowded legislative calendar and a bitterly divided Congress with only three weeks of session to pass crucial legislation before the Nov. 3 election. Congressional leaders and Trump’s White House appear no closer to a deal on more coronavirus relief than they were a month ago as millions struggle financially from the pandemic. Plus, the entire federal government shuts down if the two sides don’t pass a funding plan by the end of the month.

One House Republican expressed skepticism about the timing of the bill amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the midst of an increase in opioid addiction deaths during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems strange that the focus of House majority leadership would be to fully legalize marijuana, a known gateway drug to opioid addiction,” Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said in a statement. Harris criticized the bill for legalizing recreational marijuana and using “hard-earned taxpayer dollars to help subsidize the marijuana industry.”

A provision originally authored by Perlmutter allowing marijuana businesses to access banks was included in House Democrats’ $3.4 trillion COVID-19 relief package, but its inclusion was derided by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as part of “strange new special-interest carveouts for the marijuana industry” and is unlikely to be included in any final COVID-19 relief package.

"It's about time," Rep. Jerry Nadler told USA TODAY, calling it a "historic vote" although its future in the GOP-led Senate appears fraught.

Bill to decriminalize marijuana at federal level up for House vote next month

The MORE Act would remove marijuana as a Schedule I substance.

Lifting the curtain on the marijuana industry

A landmark bill that would decriminalize marijuana use at the federal level is up for vote soon.

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on the legislation in September, according to an email sent out on Friday by Majority Whip James Clyburn. Politico first reported on the pending vote.

The “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019” — also called the MORE Act — would officially remove cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances. It would also expunge federal marijuana convictions and arrests, and approve the allocation of resources for communities affected by the war on drugs, according to the bill’s text.

“A floor vote on the bill would be the greatest federal cannabis reform accomplishment in over 80 years,” the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce said in a statement Friday.

The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and co-sponsored by more than 50 lawmakers, by a vote of 24-10 in November.

“These steps are long overdue. For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of a matter of personal choice and public health,” Nadler, the committee’s chairman, said in a statement at the time. “Whatever one’s views on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating users at the federal level is unwise and unjust.”

The MORE Act would remove marijuana as a Schedule I substance, a category that also features other drugs, such as heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote, and leave states to regulate it.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have already legalized cannabis for adult recreational use, and 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis.

“States have led the way — and continue to lead the way — but our federal laws have not kept pace with the obvious need for change,” Nadler said. “We need to catch up because of public support and because it is the right thing to do.”

Pew Research Center and Gallup polls last year both found that about two-thirds of Americans support legalizing marijuana, with Democrats more supportive of the move than Republicans.

The issue has gotten “greater urgency,” one Democratic lawmaker said, amid calls for social justice reform during the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

“As people across the country protest racial injustices, there’s even greater urgency for Congress to seize this historic opportunity and finally align our cannabis laws with what the majority of Americans support, while ensuring restorative justice,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said in a social media post Friday sharing news on the upcoming vote.

If the bill passes the House, it would move to the Senate, where its lead sponsor is Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the Democratic nominee for vice president. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has previously noted he does not plan to endorse the legislation.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, has spoken out in favor of decriminalizing marijuana and expunging criminal records for possession charges. Like Nadler, he thinks each state should decide whether or not to legalize it.

President Donald Trump has openly opposed changing federal marijuana laws. Earlier this month, he also suggested that if Republicans wanted to win elections, they should not put marijuana legalization on the ballot.

“The next time you run please don’t put marijuana on the ballot at the same time you’re running,” Trump said at an Aug. 17 rally in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “You brought out like a million people that nobody ever knew were coming out.”

States with initiatives to legalize marijuana on the November ballot include Arizona and New Jersey.

A landmark bill that would decriminalize marijuana use at the federal level is up for vote soon.