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U.S. House passes historic bill to legalize marijuana

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East side of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (photo by Martin Falbisoner own-work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed what is being hailed as an historic bill to legalize the use of marijuana in the country.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act proposes to remove marijuana from the list in the Controlled Substances Act of 1971, which first equated pot with drugs such as heroin and LSD. It also proposes to expunge certain low-level criminal offenses, sets up a 5% sales tax on sales to reinvest in communities disproportionately affected by drug enforcement, provide for more research and other measures.

The MORE act was passed out of the House Judiciary Committee a year ago and is the first of its kind to make it to a vote on the House floor. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), was passed Friday by a vote of 228-164 along mostly party lines: 222 Democrats, five Republicans and Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian, voted in support of the bill, while 158 Republicans and six Democrats voted against it.

“Millions of Americans’ lives have been upended as a result of convictions for possessing small amounts of marijuana, and the racial disparities in conviction rates for those offenses are as shocking as they are unjust,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), said in a statement after the vote. “That’s why we passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act today.”

A 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union concluded that “Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, notwithstanding comparable usage rates.”

“In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested,” the analysis continued. “In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010.”

Democrats in support of the law also cited the growing numbers of states legalizing both medical and recreational uses of marijuana. To date, 34 states have legalized medical marijuana, including Mississippi last month, and 11 have approved it for recreational use.

In response, critics of the bill attacked Democrats for bringing the bill up during the COVID-19 pandemic and cited law-and-order arguments.

“Marijuana is one of the most abused substances on this planet,” said Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.). “Yes, legalizing weed would create revenue from taxes, but at what cost? Do we then start legalizing cocaine? Marijuana is a gateway drug, make no mistake about that. It undoubtedly leads to further and much more dangerous drug use.”

It is unlikely the bill will be brought to a vote in the U.S. Senate.

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