'50 years in the making': In historic vote against failed war on drugs, House passes marijuana decriminalization
A fully budded marijuana plant ready for trimming is seen at the Botanacare marijuana store ahead of their grand opening on New Year's day in Northglenn, Colorado December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

The Democratic-led U.S. House passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act Friday in what advocates called an "historic moment."

In the 228-164 vote, just five Republican members and one independent joined the vast majority of Democrats in supporting the MORE Act (H.R. 3884), which if signed into law would remove marijuana from the Federal Controlled Substances Act and expunge many prior convictions for possession of the substance. Only six Democrats voted against the bill.

"This is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States," said Justin Strekal, political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally prohibited substance and sought to close the rapidly widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies."

"This issue is not new to Congress. There have been many members who have introduced bills upon which provisions in this bill are based... Federal action on this issue would follow the growing recognition in the states that the status quo is unacceptable." —Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.)

The legislation was introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in 2019 and gathered 120 co-sponsors. Ahead of the vote, Nadler said that at long last, the House would take a major step toward correcting a system in which marijuana use has been treated "as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health."

"This issue is not new to Congress," the congressman said. "There have been many members who have introduced bills upon which provisions in this bill are based... Federal action on this issue would follow the growing recognition in the states that the status quo is unacceptable."

"I have long believed that the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake, and the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws has only compounded this mistake, with serious consequences, particularly for communities of color," he added.

Under the MORE Act, the federal government would impose a 5% sales tax on marijuana products, creating revenue that would go towards grant programs that would help people adversely impacted by the War on Drugs to find work and access re-entry services and legal aid. Although Americans of all races use marijuana in roughly equal numbers, Black Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as their white counterparts.

Meanwhile, with marijuana now decriminalized, legalized for medical use, or fully legalized in 44 states, people of color have so far benefited less than white Americans from state-level reforms. According to a 2017 survey, less than a fifth of people who own or invest in legal cannabis dispensaries were people of color, and Black Americans made up less than 5% of owners and stakeholders.

The legislation will "restore justice to our most marginalized communities and it will boost our economy," said Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) on the House floor on Friday.

After months of obstructing legislation to aid struggling families and businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans this week have criticized the Democratic Party for putting forward a bill focused on marijuana legalization.

"The 'pot' bills that you are so dismissive of will expunge millions of people’s records from the unjust War on Drugs," tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Thursday in response to Rep. Jodey Arrington's (R-Texas) criticism.

"Make no mistake: This is a major racial justice bill," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) on the House floor Friday.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) credited campaigners, including those at the Marijuana Justice Coalition, NORML, and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which have worked for decades to pass marijuana legalization and for the past year to ensure the MORE Act was given a vote on the House floor.

"Don't let anyone tell you that organizing doesn't matter," tweeted Omar.

Last month, Gallup found that 68% of American adults support marijuana legalization—the highest percentage ever recorded. As Ocasio-Cortez noted after the MORE Act passed, voters in both red and blue states this year voted in favor of legalization.

"The Senate must listen to the American people and vote on this bill," the congresswoman said.

DPA noted Friday that as passed, the MORE Act is "imperfect" and will leave out some of those most negatively impacted by the War on Drugs.

"As the MORE Act moved through the political process, language impacting people with criminal legal system involvement was added to the final version of the bill. Those provisions disallow people with marijuana convictions from potentially fully participating in the industry at the federal level," said the group. "DPA is committed to working with next year's Congress to remove these additions and pass a bill that fully aligns with our principles."

NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said in a statement that although the MORE Act is not expected to pass in a Republican-led Senate, the House has "set the stage for a much-needed legislative showdown in 2021 when we will have the Biden administration in office—one that has publicly expressed an appetite for advancing the restorative justice remedies outlined in the MORE Act."

"We are primed and ready for this legislative debate and we expect, ultimately, to win it," said Altieri.