House passes bill to decriminalize marijuana, set up steps to wipe out convictions

Key Points
  • The House passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and set up a process to expunge previous convictions.
  • It is unclear if the bill will gain any traction in the Republican-held Senate.
  • The bill's proponents described it as a racial justice initiative and one step toward repairing the damage done to people of color by the war on drugs.
Adam Eidinger, founder of DCMJ.org, speaks during the groups' protest in front of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, April 24, 2017, to call on Congress to reschedule the drug classification of marijuana.
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

The House passed a bill Friday to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and set up a process to expunge past convictions.

The Democratic-led chamber approved the measure in a 228-164 vote. Only five Republicans and one independent backed it. Six Democrats voted against the bill.

It marks the first time the House has voted to remove cannabis from the Federal Controlled Substances Act. The legislation also includes provisions to boost entrepreneurship in the legal marijuana business, including among people of color disproportionately harmed by decades of federal drug law enforcement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that he has no plans to vote on the legislation. On Thursday, he quipped that the House is "spending this week on pressing issues like marijuana" instead of coronavirus relief. Congressional leaders are working to craft a bipartisan aid package that can pass both chambers of Congress and hope to vote on it next week.

Marijuana won in every state it was on the ballot—Here's what it means
Marijuana won in every state it was on the ballot—Here's what it means

In a statement following the marijuana vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the legislation is "part of a broader movement to address inequities in criminal justice, business and more." He encouraged his chamber to support the bill.

The effort to decriminalize marijuana nationwide comes as more states legalize it for recreational or medical use. Fifteen states have now legalized the substance. Four — Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota — did so during the 2020 election alone.

Thirty-six states have authorized marijuana for medical use.

Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Barbara Lee of California, co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, have described the bill as one step toward repairing the damage done by the war on drugs. Writing to House lawmakers earlier this month, they called it a "critical issue of racial justice."

Speaking on the House floor Friday, Blumenauer said Congress needs to catch up with the rest of the American people.

"We're here because we have failed three generations of Black and Brown young people, whose lives can be ruined, or lost, by selective enforcement of these laws," he said. "This legislation will end that disaster."

The legislation would require federal courts to expunge marijuana arrests and convictions and resentence Americans after a judicial review process, according to Blumenauer's office. As marijuana would no longer be considered a federal controlled substance, possession of it would not be a cause for deportation.

The legislation would create an excise tax on marijuana sales to fund reentry services for formerly incarcerated people and substance-use treatment. It would also put funding into efforts to increase equity and access to loans in the marijuana business.

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