The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill Wednesday that legalizes marijuana on the federal level, removing it from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act.
The legislation, which passed 24 to 10, has a high chance of approval in the full House where Democrats control the chamber with 234 seats. It's likely to face a tougher battle in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes marijuana legalization.
The legislation allows states to enact their own policies and gives them incentives to clear criminal records of people with low-level marijuana offenses. It also includes a 5% tax on cannabis products that would provide job training and legal assistance to those hit hardest by the war on drugs.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States. U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday repeatedly cited the disproportionate impact drug laws have had on communities of color, saying that decriminalizing marijuana helps alleviate some of that imbalance.
"The criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake," Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said during the markup of the bill. "The racial disparity in marijuana enforcement laws only compounded this mistake with serious consequences, particularly for minority communities."
Some Republican members expressed concerns that the bill went too far and that it was unlikely to be taken up in the Senate.
"I don't think a majority of the Republicans will support this bill," Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado said Wednesday. "It is even less likely that the Senate would take it up. Therefore, I would just suggest that we deal with other bills that we can get a much larger bipartisan support from."
In response, Nadler said that House Democrats can "negotiate" with the Senate, acknowledging Republicans won't take the bill "as is."
"I don't think it's a good idea ... to say, 'the Senate won't take this bill,'" he said. "When the House passes a bill, it's part of a continuing process. It's not the end of a process."
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, also known as NORML, has called the legislation the "biggest marijuana news of the year."
A majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, according to the Pew Research Center. The bill has more than 50 co-sponsors, according to Congress.gov. Backers of a Senate version of the legislation include, presidential contender Sen. Kamala Harris.
Only 11 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for recreational use. Medical marijuana, prescribed by physicians, is legal in 33 states and Washington, D.C.
The committee approval comes two months after the House passed legislation that would protect banks that serve marijuana businesses in states where the substance is legal.