The House of Representatives voted to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level on Friday. It may not be the final legal word on the matter, but it’s a historic moment in the godforsaken war on drugs.
In a 228-to-164 vote, members of Congress passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) paving the way to taking the federal boot off the necks of states that have already legalized the use of cannabis in one form or another. If it passes the Republican-controlled Senate, the bill would remove weed from the federal register of schedule 1 drugs, allow people to have their prior federal convictions going back to 1971 to be expunged, and make it easier for veterans to obtain medical access to cannabis nationwide.
The fact that this legislation is being taken up during a lame-duck session when the nation is focused on economic relief and stimulus is not a hopeful sign. But legislators felt there was momentum on this issue after five new states passed their own legalization efforts earlier this month. That brings the total number of states with some form of legalized cannabis to 36. And this year, we saw traditionally conservative states like Mississippi and South Dakota pass reforms.
Today’s affirmative vote on the MORE Act was primarily driven by Democrats with only six members of the party voting no. On the Republican side of the aisle, only five members of the party voted yes on the bill.
The traditional wisdom that Republicans would never let this happen is starting to fall apart—at least among voters. For instance, on November 4th, more people in Mississippi voted in favor of the state’s medical marijuana initiative than voted for Donald Trump to be President. Nationally, a recent Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans support cannabis legalization.
Republican Congressman from Florida and fervent Trump supporter Matt Gaetz stood up for legalization at today’s hearing saying, “The federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana. My Republican colleagues today will make a number of arguments against this bill, but those arguments are overwhelmingly losing with the American people.”
Still, the Washington Post reports that more libertarian-minded conservative lawmakers who might be willing to back legalization on principle found a way to disapprove. Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie said that he opposed the inclusion in the bill of a 5% federal excise tax that would be used for programs to help “individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.”
And then there’s Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate Majority. The Senator from Kentucky suddenly decided this week that a coronavirus relief bill is now the highest priority after he spent months avoiding the issue in the run-up to the election. “The House of Representatives is spending this week on pressing issues like marijuana,” McConnell said in a mocking statement on Thursday. “You know, serious and important legislation befitting this national crisis. But here in the Senate, I put forward a serious and highly targeted relief proposal including the elements which we know the President is ready and willing to sign into law.”
So, yeah, this one’s probably not getting past ol’ Mitch. But it’s a start.