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US Congress approves bill to federally legalize weed

The historic vote in the United States House of Representatives on Friday, 4 December, to decriminalize cannabis is a landmark ruling. However, the MORE (Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement) Act is unlikely to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate and therefore the vote remains largely symbolic at this stage.

 

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How the House voted for Cannabis Reform

 

Prior to the bill’s approval in a 228 to 164 vote, Republican lawmakers spent days criticizing their Democratic counterparts for even bringing the legislation to the floor.

While the vote was mostly along party lines, five Republicans supported the reform and six Democrats opposed it.

 

Weed convictions to be expunged

Under the cannabis would be federally descheduled and those with prior convictions would have their records expunged. The descheduling provisions would be retroactive, too.

Despite the unprecedented House victory for reformers, few believe the legislation stands a chance in the Republican-controlled Senate, at least before the end of the current Congress early next month. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead sponsor of the Senate companion version of the bill.

Ahead of the bill’s passage, debate on the floor largely consisted of Democrats making the case that the reform will help to right the wrongs of the racist war on drugs, and Republicans arguing that legalization would cause harms to children and public safety and that now is not the right time to consider the issue in any case.

Introducing the bill, Texan Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee said: “Across this nation, thousands of men and women have suffered needlessly from the federal criminalization of marijuana, particularly in communities of color and have borne the burden of collateral consequences for those ensnared in criminal legal systems that have damaged our society across generations. This is unacceptable and we must change our laws. It is time for Congress to catch up with the reforms that states are enacting.”

 

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Congress DID!

 

‘The government has lied about marijuana for a generation’

Republican Matt Gaetz from Florida was the sole GOP cosponsor of the legislation. He said that while he felt the bill was “flawed,” he voted for it “because the federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana for a generation.

“We have seen a generation, particularly of black and brown youth, locked up for offenses that not should have not resulted in any incarceration whatsoever,” he said. 

The fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, said cannabis criminalization represents “a stain on our democracy,” emphasizing ongoing racial disparities in enforcement despite the fact that black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rates.

Congressional Cannabis Caucus Co-chair , Californian Democrat Barbara Lee  said the MORE Act “is an important racial justice measure” and “the product of years of work by so many activists and advocates and young people—and it’s long overdue.”

 

United States of Cannabis, US Cannabis flag, US cannabis reform

The United States of Cannabis

 

“It’s time to end these unjust laws which has shattered the lives of so many young people of colour,” the congresswoman, who presided over the chamber during the final vote, said.

 

Congress has to deal with the disasterous ‘war on drugs’

Longtime marijuana reform advocate, Democrat Earl Blumenauer, another Cannabis Caucus co-chair, gave an impassioned speech in support of the bill.

“We’re not rushing to legalize marijuana,” he said. “The American people have already done that. We’re here because Congress has failed to deal with the disastrous war on drugs and do its part for the over 50 million regular marijuana users [who live in] every one of your districts.”

“It’s time for Congress to step up and do its part,” he said. “We need to catch up with the rest of the American people.”

Republican Jim Jordan of Ohio, criticised Democratic priorities by speeding up the vote, and slammed the tax provisions of the MORE Act.

“This bill—it’s not enough just to legalize marijuana. They want taxpayers to pay for it,” he said of Democrats. “This bill sets up a grant program. This is the marijuana business infrastructure bill.”

He said “in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic House Democrats are rushing to pass a sweeping marijuana legalization bill without considering the unintended consequences the legislation will have on workplace and public safety,” she said. The vote on the motion will occur after the vote on passage.

“Wars are costly, and the war on marijuana is no exception,” said Democrat David Cicilline. “The costs of the war on marijuana have disproportionately fell on the backs of blacks and Latinos.” His party colleague, Lou Correa, noted that “than half of all Americans live in a state where cannabis is legal” and said Congress should “align federal cannabis laws with the will of the people. Let’s take full advantage of the medical benefits of cannabis.”

 

Historic day for US cannabis reform

Justin Stekal, political director of NORML, said this “is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States.”

“This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance, and it marks the first time in 24 years—when California became the first state defy the federal government on the issue of marijuana prohibition—that Congress has sought to close the widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies,” he said. 

“By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations—arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”

 

With legalization comes tax

As now structured, the MORE Act would make it so cannabis would be federally taxed at five percent for the first two years after implementation and then increased by one percent each year until reaching eight percent. After five years, taxes would be applied to marijuana products based on weight rather than price.

The bill would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

A new Cannabis Justice Office under the Justice Department would be responsible for distributing funds providing loans for small cannabis businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. The bill also seeks to minimize barriers to licensing and employment in the legal industry.

It would also establish a Community Reinvestment Grant Program. Tax dollars appropriated to that program would go to job training, legal aid for criminal and civil cases such as those concerning marijuana-related expungements, literacy programs and youth recreation and mentoring services, among other programs.

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