WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House will vote on legalizing marijuana at the federal level for the first time in the chamber’s history later this month, a hurdle Democrats and advocates are celebrating as Congress grapples with a host of pressing issues before the November election.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would vote on the MORE Act during the week of Sept. 21. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., would remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances and expunge some marijuana-related criminal records, though it would still be up to states to pass their own regulations on the sale of marijuana.
“It’s about time,” Nadler told USA TODAY, calling it a “historic vote” marking the beginning of the end of the federal government’s “40-year, very misguided crusade” against marijuana.
Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, a group advocating for the decriminalization of drugs, said her organization was “thrilled,” saying the bill would “begin to repair some of the harms caused by the war on drugs in communities of color and low-income communities.”
The House’s vote comes as views of marijuana have changed in Washington and increased numbers of Americans support the legalization of the drug, whether for recreational or medicinal purposes. And while this bill is likely to fail in the Republican-majority Senate, advocates still saw the vote as a step forward.
“I don’t even know if two years ago, I would have said that an act like this would have passed,” said Adam Goers, the vice president of corporate affairs at Columbia Care, which operates marijuana dispensaries across the country.
According to a 2019 Gallup survey, 66% of Americans supported legalization, though support did differ by party. More than three-quarters of Democrats said they supported legalization, as opposed to about half of Republicans.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., told USA TODAY, “the country has moved” its views on marijuana.
With Congress’ action, “there’s a recognition of where the states are, and we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to cannabis,” he said, referring to the states who have already legalized marijuana in some form. “And we just need to move forward with these pieces of legislation and get the federal and state laws to align with each other.”
Marijuana is currently regulated by a patchwork of laws at the state and federal levels, and Goers said legalization at the federal level would add “normalization” for businesses and states by legalizing marijuana at the federal level.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have legalized medical marijuana, but marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump declined to enforce federal prohibitions on marijuana against states that legalized it for recreational or medicinal use. As president, Obama supported the decriminalization of marijuana, though not its full legalization.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has called for the decriminalization of marijuana and the expunging of convictions for marijuana use, though he expressed skepticism about the legalization of the drug during the Democratic presidential primary. Biden’s website says he supports the legalization of medical marijuana and would leave decisions on recreational use up to the states.