Pubdate: Fri, 04 Dec 2020
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2020 The Washington Post Company
Author: Mike Debonis


The House endorsed a landmark retreat in the nation's decades-long war
on drugs Friday, voting to remove marijuana from the federal schedule
of controlled substances and provide for the regulation and taxation
of legal cannabis sales.

The vote was 228 to 164 and was the first time either chamber of
Congress has voted on the issue of federally decriminalizing cannabis.

The measure is not expected to pass into law, and, because of
political skittishness, it was voted on only after the November
election and more than a year after it emerged from committee. But the
House took a stand at a moment of increasing momentum, with voters
last month opting to liberalize marijuana laws in five states -
including three that President Trump won handily.

Friday's vote, however, was largely along party lines, with Democrats
voting overwhelmingly to support the federal decriminalization bill
and all but five Republicans opposing it.

"We are not rushing to legalize marijuana - the American people have
already done that. We are here because Congress has failed to deal
with a disastrous war on drugs and do its part for the over 50 million
regular marijuana users in every one of your districts," said Rep.
Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a longtime liberalization advocate. "We need
to catch up with the rest of the American people."

Top Republicans - including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy
(Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) - made
derisive public comments about the bill this week, painting the
measure as a frivolous diversion from the task of funding the federal
government and delivering a new round of emergency coronavirus aid to

One headline from McConnell: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decide=
s to=20
"puff, puff, pass" on emergency coronavirus relief.

"It's just unbelievable how tone-deaf they are to these small
businesses and the jobs, the families that are tied to them," House
Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a Fox News Channel
interview Thursday, slamming Democratic leaders for holding the vote.

But some are warning that Republicans risk finding themselves out of
step with their own voters, who are increasingly embracing the
loosening of marijuana restrictions - including outright

On Election Day in South Dakota, for instance, 54 percent of voters
opted to legalize marijuana, while only 36 percent of voters chose the
Democratic presidential ticket. In Montana, the 57 percent who voted
to legalize marijuana nearly matched the number who voted to reelect
Trump. And Mississippi became the first state in the Deep South to
legalize marijuana for medical use, with 62 percent of voters
approving a ballot measure in a state where Trump won 58 percent of
the vote.

Fifteen states have legalized recreational cannabis to some degree,
and 36 states have approved medical marijuana programs, according to
the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level would not end the vast
majority of cannabis-use prosecutions, which occur in state courts.
But it would end troublesome conflicts between state and federal law
for those states that have loosened pot restrictions and would greatly
ease commerce for the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.

Public opinion appears to be in line with the state-level electoral
trend. In October, Gallup found that 68 percent of Americans said the
use of marijuana should be legal, the highest support for marijuana
legalization since the polling organization first asked in 1969.

While overwhelming proportions of Democrats and independents supported
legalization, Republicans were split: 52 percent for legalization and
48 percent against - figures that have changed only slightly in recent

But that near 50-50 split among Republican voters is not even close to
being mirrored in the GOP lawmaker ranks. Only two of 17 House
Republicans, Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Tom McClintock (Calif.),
supported the bill in the Judiciary Committee.

The prospects of winning Republican support for the House bill were
complicated by some of its provisions - such as the establishment of a
5 percent federal excise tax that would in part fund programs for
"individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs," job
training, legal aid in seeking to expunge marijuana convictions, and
mentoring programs.

The bill also provides for the expungement of federal marijuana
convictions dating to 1971 and bars the denial of federal public
benefits or security clearances on the basis of marijuana offenses.

That has turned off some libertarian-minded Republicans who might
otherwise support eliminating marijuana restrictions. "Tax and spend,"
said Rep. Thomas Massie (Ky.), who said he would have considered
voting for the bill had Democratic leaders allowed a vote on an
amendment to eliminate the tax component.

Gaetz said Friday that he was voting for the bill despite the flaws.
"The federal government has lied to the people of this country about
marijuana," he said. "My Republican colleagues today will make a
number of arguments against this bill, but those arguments are
overwhelmingly losing with the American people."

Gaetz is among a small group of Republicans who say publicly that it
is a matter of political malpractice that the party has not taken a
softer line on federal marijuana laws.

"The leadership is sort of stuck," said Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who went
on to allude to the infamous 1936 prohibitionist film "Reefer
Madness." "I always jokingly say =85 they were all in the theater
watching. And they're still sort of of this belief that marijuana is
going to destroy the world somehow."

Pro-pot activists are facing another major setback in winning support
in the Republican ranks: the Nov. 3 loss of Sen. Cory Gardner
(R-Colo.), who emerged as an especially fervent advocate for the
cannabis industry in the Republican ranks. It is unclear who - beyond
Paul, a libertarian often estranged from his party's leadership -
might take up the mantle.

Still, advocates of marijuana legalization say the passage of the bill
in the House is a watershed moment in the long struggle to roll back
marijuana prohibition, and many see it as only a matter of time before
it becomes an issue of bipartisan concern.

Maritza Perez of Drug Policy Alliance said the partisan nature of the
marijuana debate on Capitol Hill reflects the deeply divided nature of
Congress rather than an intractable difference on policy.

"The tide is really turning on this issue, and I think it's just
something the government can't ignore anymore," said Perez, her
organization's director of national affairs. "Congress is going to
have to come to the table and address this."

The imperatives go beyond the political shift, according to Randal
John Meyer, the executive director of the Global Alliance for Cannabis
Commerce, who said businesses in states that have legalized marijuana
are facing an increasingly incoherent legal and regulatory framework.

"It's reached a critical tipping point where the basics of letting
someone work and do their job consistent with state law and state
licenses runs against the federal prohibitionist stance of
Republicans," said Meyer, a former aide to Paul. "That tension can't
hold; it's reaching past the breaking point."

Republicans, he added, will find their anti-pot stance to be
increasingly at odds with their more fundamental pro-business,
anti-regulation tenets. Referring to the descheduling effort, he said,
"The Democratic Party is trying to actually generate new business and
new industry with this and to help recover the economy."

But interviews with several Republican lawmakers revealed a
fundamental reluctance to loosen pot restrictions - even in states
where voters have endorsed legalization measures.

In Arizona last month, 60 percent of voters chose to pursue
legalization, but Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said she was not
inclined to loosen federal laws, given her concerns about addiction
after speaking to teens in addiction recovery programs.

"Every one of them - they said they started by using marijuana," she
said. 'I am not saying that every person that smokes marijuana is
going to be addicted to harder drugs, but I am concerned that we have
so much costs associated with addiction in our country."

"With all that's going on in our world, I just don't necessarily think
this is the time," said Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), who represents a
state where two-thirds of voters chose last month to legalize
marijuana. "There are certain points to be made. But the bottom line
is my concern for urban areas, concern for kids."

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who represents a state where cannabis use has
been legal for nearly seven years, said he backed easing some of the
commercial restrictions on the pot industry. But, he said, "going as
far as this bill goes is going to make sense someday. I'm not sure it
makes sense right now."

Advocates say they plan to redouble their efforts in the new Congress,
but a much tighter Democratic majority could mean the bill that was
passed Friday - the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement
Act - might not come up again in the House, let alone in the Senate,
where McConnell has expressed firm opposition to legalizing pot. But
Democratic wins in the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff elections for the U.S.
Senate would sideline McConnell and could open a narrow window for
compromise action.

Perez said that the trend is clear and that more Republicans are bound
to change their views: "I really do believe that November's elections
can help really start to shift some of these members, realizing that
this is going to happen and they need to get on board."

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.