House votes to end federal marijuana prohibition
Breaking almost entirely along party lines, the House on December 4 voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 (H.R. 3884). The vote was 228 to 164, with only a handful of Republicans voting "aye" and a handful of Democrats voting "nay."
The MORE Act would effectively end federal pot prohibition by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act's list of scheduled substances and eliminating federal criminal penalties for the possession, cultivation, and sale of marijuana. The bill would not affect state laws that criminalize marijuana, but it would end the conflict between states that have already legalized marijuana and federal law.
The bill also includes strong social equity provisions, including the creation of a fund to support programs and services for communities devastated by the war on drugs, a provision for expungement of past federal marijuana offenses, and a provision that bars the federal government from discriminating against people for marijuana use, which would protect immigrants from being deported for past marijuana convictions and would ensure that earned benefits are not denied to marijuana users.
The historic vote marks the first time either chamber of Congress has voted to end marijuana prohibition. But there is virtually no chance that the Republican-led Senate will take up—let alone approve—the measure in the remaining days of this session, meaning this is a battle that will continue in the next Congress.
Still, marijuana law reform advocates were quick to celebrate the victory.
"Today's [December 4] vote marks a historic victory for the marijuana policy reform movement. It indicates that federal lawmakers are finally listening to the overwhelming majority of Americans who are in favor of ending prohibition and comes at a critical time as this important measure addresses two key challenges we currently face," Marijuana Policy Project executive director Steven Hawkins said in a statement, moments after the voting ended.
"Serious criminal justice reform cannot begin in our country without ending the war on cannabis," Hawkins continued. "The MORE Act would set federal marijuana policy on a path toward correcting an unfair system and help restore justice to those who have been victimized by prohibition. This legislation would also help address our country's fiscal and economic challenges by empowering states to implement programs that can stimulate economic growth and generate new tax revenue at a time when both are desperately needed. We call on the Senate to listen to the American people and pass the MORE Act without delay."
"This is HUGE!" said a blog post by Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), while speaking about the vote on December 4. "This is an 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 [to] 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."
"The criminalization of marijuana is a cornerstone of the racist war on drugs. Even after a decade of reform victories, one person was arrested nearly every minute last year for simply possessing marijuana," said Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), in a press release issued by the group. "Today the House took the most powerful step forward to address that shameful legacy. But the MORE Act as passed is imperfect, and we will continue to demand more until our communities have the world they deserve."
DPA is particularly irked by the insertion of language during the legislative process that limits expungement and resentencing provisions for people with nonviolent marijuana offenses and language that blocks people with marijuana felony convictions from "fully participating in the industry at the federal level." The group said in its press release that it would work with Congress next session "to remove these additions and pass a bill that fully aligns with our principles."
"Getting to this point definitely gives us hope, but the fight is far from over. We will continue to build support for an even stronger, and more inclusive bill in the next session," Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for DPA's office of national affairs, said in the press release. "We are grateful that members of Congress have rightly come to the realization that the drug war has exacerbated the racial injustices in this country and ending marijuana prohibition is a concrete tangible action they can take to benefit our communities now."
Not everyone was happy, though. America's leading anti-pot activist, Dr. Kevin Sabet, president and co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), lashed out at the vote and the House leadership in a post about the passage of the bill on SAM's website calling it a "useless show vote."
"The pot industry has won a post-season exhibition game, but they're treating it like Game 7 of the World Series," Sabet said in a statement. "The bill is a smokescreen for Altria Phillip [sic] Morris and their Big Tobacco gang of investors. As we have seen in state after state, marijuana commercialization does not lead to any tangible benefit for disadvantaged communities and social equity programs continue to be manipulated. Legalization simply results in rich, overwhelmingly white men getting richer while using predatory marketing tactics to expand substance abuse in the communities that were somehow supposed to benefit. Big Pot doesn't care about social justice or equity, its only concern is profit."
But while Sabet goes on about a "Big Pot" boogeyman, he neglects to mention who actually supports the bill: the American people. In the latest Gallup poll, released in November, 68 percent of American adults said they wanted legal marijuana. They may have to wait for the next Congress to get it done at the federal level, but the passage of the MORE Act is in line with what the public wants, even if prohibitionists don't wish to acknowledge this.
Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.
This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.
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