Updated: Apr 9, 2022
The House is set to pass legislation on Friday to legalize marijuana nationwide, an effort that has unprecedented levels of support in both chambers of Congress.
The bill is likely to pass the lower chamber largely along party lines, with most Republicans expected to oppose it.
Proponents argue that legalizing marijuana at the federal level will simply reflect most states’ existing policies that allow it in some form.
They also frame the effort as a way to end the disproportionate punishment of racial minorities and people in low-income communities for possessing and using weed.
And with an overwhelming majority of Americans — as much as 91 percent in a Pew Research Poll last year — backing marijuana legalization for at least medical purposes, Democrats believe it’s a winning issue for them ahead of November’s midterms.
“This landmark legislation is one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history: delivering justice for those harmed by the brutal, unfair consequences of criminalization; opening the doors of opportunity for all to participate in this rapidly growing industry; and decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level so we do not repeat the grave mistakes of our past,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on the House floor on Thursday.
The bill, titled the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, would eliminate criminal penalties associated with the drug and establish a process to expunge previous convictions from people’s criminal records.
It would further impose a federal tax on marijuana sales to fund programs meant to help communities negatively impacted by so-called “war on drugs” policies beginning in the 1970s.
Friday’s vote will mark the second time that House Democrats have advanced legislation to decriminalize marijuana, after previously passing the measure in December 2020.
But the last effort didn’t gain any traction in the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans at the time.
But now, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said that marijuana legalization is a top priority, and he has been working with fellow Democrats to unveil a bill this spring.
It’s not yet clear, however, if enough Senate Republicans, or even all Democrats, would get on board for the bill to clear a filibuster.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), whose states have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic, have both expressed skepticism about broadly legalizing marijuana.
Republicans opposed to the legislation say legalization would do more harm than good.
Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.), a former police officer, recalled having to make “devastating” visits to inform people that their family members had died in accidents resulting from drivers who were under the influence of drugs. He warned that legalizing weed could lead to an increase in people driving while high.
“We can all sit here and pretend that marijuana is a harmless drug, but it is not. It clouds your judgment and inhibits your reaction time,” Stauber said.
A smaller number of Republicans support legalizing marijuana.
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) has introduced her own bill to legalize cannabis products. But it currently only has three GOP cosponsors: Reps. Brian Mast (Fla.), Tom McClintock (Calif.) and Peter Meijer (Mich.).
Mace’s proposal would set an age limit of 21 for cannabis use. It would also impose a smaller tax on marijuana sales — 3 percent — than the bill Democrats are bringing to the House floor and establish a 10-year moratorium on any tax increases.
The Democratic bill would first establish a 5 percent tax that would gradually increase to 8 percent over five years.
At least 18 states, two territories and the District of Columbia allow cannabis for adult, non-medical use, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. More than twice as many states – 37 – allow pot for medical use.
“Americans have made their support for cannabis legalization abundantly clear, and states across the country have taken the lead on cannabis legalization. Now it is time for Congress to take action and finally put an end to the failed policy of prohibition,” said Toi Hutchinson, president and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group.
Before final passage on Friday, the House will consider amendments from two centrist Democrats, Reps. Conor Lamb (Pa.) and Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), to study the impact of marijuana legalization on workplaces and schools, as well as the methods that law enforcement can use to determine whether a driver is impaired by weed.
Another amendment up for debate from Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) would clarify that people could not be denied security clearances because of cannabis use.
While Schumer may face an uphill path to securing 60 votes for broad marijuana legalization in the Senate, proponents may have success with more narrow measures.
The Senate passed a bill by unanimous consent last week that would expand scientific and medical research on marijuana and its compounds.
The House has also passed legislation twice in the last year to allow legally operating cannabis businesses to use banking services and credit cards so that they no longer have to be cash-only.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, predicted that the banking legislation had a shot of securing enough bipartisan support in the Senate to pass.
Unlike the MORE Act, which only won the support of five Republicans in 2020, the measure to allow cannabis businesses to access banking services passed in the House passed handily by a vote of 321-101 just under a year ago.
“We have, I think, probably in the low 60s in the Senate,” Blumenauer said.