It was an entirely symbolic measure, since Mitch McConnell is not about to hold a similar vote in the Senate. But the U.S. House today broke new ground by voting mostly along party lines to decriminalize cannabis use at the federal level. Here’s CNN’s summary of the provisions of the bill:
[It] would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and eliminate criminal penalties for individuals who manufacture, distribute or possess marijuana. It also includes creating a process to remove prior convictions, known as expungement, and conduct sentencing review hearings for federal cannabis offenses.
The measure would also authorize a 5% sales tax on marijuana products to invest in services such as job training, legal aid and substance abuse treatment for individuals adversely impacted by the war on drugs. The tax revenue would also provide funds for small businesses loans and allow access to marijuana licensing and employment for economically disadvantaged individuals.
The bill is in line with President-elect Joe Biden’s position on the subject; he favors decriminalization but not full legalization of pot. Full legalization is probably closer to the Democratic Party’s center of gravity, but it was an important first step in that direction. Fifteen states have moved toward legalization of recreational cannabis use, and Gallup has found that 68 percent of Americans now favor legal pot.
The bill passed by a 228-164 margin with five Republicans (including the sole GOP co-sponsor, Matt Gaetz of Florida) voting for it and six Democrats voting no.
There was much mocking of the measure by congressional Republicans who viewed the time spent on it as reflecting Democratic frivolity. Other Republicans sincerely attacked cannabis using language right out of Reefer Madness, as ABC reported:
“Marijuana is one of the most abused substances on this planet,” Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., argued. “Legalizing weed would create revenue from taxes, but at what cost? Do we then start legalizing cocaine? Marijuana is a gateway drug – make no mistake about that. It undoubtably leads to further and much more dangerous drug use.”
Sooner or later cannabis is going to be decriminalized and then almost certainly legalized federally, and in a majority of states. But it won’t happen this year, or next, with a new Congress about to come in with even closer partisan margins than the current one. Perhaps Democrats can unite around it as a campaign issue for the 2022 midterms.