The House passed, 228-164, a standalone bill Friday to decriminalize cannabis for the first time since President Richard Nixon imposed severe penalties during his "war on drugs" a half-century ago.
The bill is unlikely to become law as long as Republicans control the Senate, but the vote is a symbolic victory for opponents of a “tough-on-crime” approach to the popular drug that has led to the imprisonment of millions of Americans, disproportionately Black men.
The bill would remove marijuana from the schedule of illegal drugs established under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, where it remains classified as a highly dangerous drug without health benefits, despite ongoing research about its medicinal potential and a tide of state legalization measures.
The House floor debate on the issue Thursday and Friday was overshadowed by paralysis on pandemic relief amid devastating unemployment, a looming eviction crisis and spiking COVID-19 deaths. Republicans argued that the bill is frivolous, while Democrats called it overdue.
The bill is meant to end the tension between increasingly liberal state policies and the federal restrictions.
All but three states have loosened cannabis laws to some degree, according to the Congressional Research Service. Congress has used its annual budget to prohibit funding the pursuit of those acting within state medical marijuana laws, but there are exceptions, and recreational users enjoy no such protection under the Trump administration’s Department of Justice.
Under the law, most people with federal marijuana convictions would have their records expunged, while people convicted of crimes in tandem with marijuana-related offenses could be resentenced. The bill would also prohibit the government from biasing business loans, decisions on immigration status, or aid based on marijuana use or a marijuana offense. Federal agencies could still drug test job applicants, but couldn’t deny anyone a security clearance based on marijuana use.
The proceeds of a new 5 percent tax on marijuana sales would fund job training, re-entry services, health education programs, literacy programs, youth recreation or mentoring programs, legal aid, and addiction treatment. The grant programs would be overseen by a new office at the DOJ.
The vote comes after racial justice protests this summer highlighted disparities in drug arrests.
Cannabis Caucus Co-Chair Barbara Lee, D-Calif., on Friday cited American Civil Liberties Union statistics that Black and Latino people are more likely to be arrested and be sentenced to long prison sentences.
"Make no mistake, this is a major racial justice bill," Lee said.
Republicans said Democrats should focus on other priorities than cannabis.
“I find it crazy, quite frankly, that the American people and small businesses are hurting because of the COVID crisis and need COVID relief and we’re not concentrating on a bipartisan COVID relief stimulus package,” Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., said Thursday. “I find it just incredulous that instead my Democratic colleagues are focused on legalizing marijuana nationwide. … Sometimes I think the world is turned upside-down.”
The bill would not legalize marijuana in all states, but rather synchronize federal policies with state policies in states that have decriminalized or legalized the drug. Arizona voters approved a ballot initiative last month to legalize marijuana for adults over the age of 21.
Lesko also questioned why the bill does not explicitly call for Food and Drug Administration oversight of flavored marijuana products, given that Democrats passed a bill last year that would require the agency to crack down on flavored tobacco products that appeal to children.
Some Republicans said the bill should have done more to ensure Food and Drug Administration effectively regulates cannabis advertising and potency, while others said they worried national decriminalization would lead to marijuana being federally regulated when that's best left to the states.
Rep. Steven M. Palazzo, R-Miss., said in the debate Friday that more should be done to ensure the decriminalization of marijuana at the national level would not lead to legalization, given most states have not legalized it for all adults. Mississippi approved medical marijuana by ballot initiative in November, but it remains illegal for recreational use.
"To legalize marijuana or not is one thing. To pass a bill that has no recourse for states that don't want mass legalization, which totals 35 states, is irresponsible," Palazzo said.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said in a fiery floor speech Thursday that the bill is decades in the making.
“This legislation does not legalize cannabis across the country," Blumenauer said. "What it does is stops the federal government from interfering with what states have decided to do."
He noted that Lesko, who led the opposition, lives in a state that just approved legalizing marijuana, and the legislation would prevent the federal government from interfering with what voters in her home state of Arizona decided.
“An end to the failed prohibition of cannabis is happening today because it has been demanded by voters, by facts, and by the momentum behind this issue,” he said.
In every state where the issue appeared on the ballot in November — Montana, Arizona, New Jersey, Mississippi and South Dakota — voters approved measures to liberalize marijuana laws.
In November 2019, the Judiciary Committee voted to advance the bill in a 24-10 vote. Advocates in Congress said the bill was due for a vote this summer, but it stalled after moderate Democrats pushed for a delay until after the election because they thought it would be unpopular during a pandemic.
The vote also follows years of advocacy by groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which argue the bill reflects the ongoing normalization of cannabis among a majority of the American population, and a push by the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., the sole Republican co-sponsor, unsuccessfully sought in a Rules Committee hearing Wednesday to add an amendment that would have struck the grant program and new DOJ office.
On Friday, Gaetz called the bill flawed because it "uses cannabis policy to do a great deal of social engineering, to create new taxes and new programs and redistribution of assets. But I'm voting for it."
"My Republican colleagues today will make a number of arguments against this bill but those arguments are overwhelmingly losing with the American people," he added. "If we were measuring the success in the war on drugs, it would be hard to conclude anything other than the fact that drugs have won — because the American people do not support the policies of incarceration, limited research, limited choice and particularly constraining medical applications."
The future of the bill and other marijuana-related measures, like one to permit marijuana businesses to access financial services and another to encourage research on the plant, could hinge on which party has a majority in the Senate, which remains uncertain until two runoff elections in Georgia are determined.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance in the U.S. About 68 percent of Americans, including 48 percent of Republicans, approve the legalization of marijuana, according to a October 2020 Gallup poll.