House passes bill to decriminalize marijuana

For the second time in two years, the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday voted to pass legislation that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (or MORE) Act, which was authored by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., passed in a 220-204 vote, with all but two Democrats (Reps. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire and Henry Cuellar of Texas) voting in support of the measure and all but three Republicans (Reps. Matt Gaetz and Brian Mast of Florida, and Tom McClintock of California) voting against it. One Democrat and four Republicans did not cast votes.

The bill would remove marijuana from the controlled substances list and leave it up to states to set their own laws regulating the drug. It would also release people incarcerated on cannabis-related offenses of less than 30 grams and expunge criminal penalties associated with those who manufacture, distribute and possess it.

“This landmark legislation is one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, adding that it would deliver “justice for those harmed by the brutal, unfair consequences of criminalization” and ensure that “we do not repeat the grave mistakes of our past.”

A fully budded marijuana plant. (Rick Wilking/Reuters/File)
A fully budded marijuana plant. (Rick Wilking/Reuters/File)

The legislation is an attempt to reverse the harmful effects stemming from the so-called war on drugs, a global campaign started in the 1970s by President Richard Nixon with the stated goal of eliminating illegal drug use and trade in the United States.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said the MORE Act was a “common-sense” response to the “GOP's failed authoritarian war on marijuana.”

“It's like they saw ‘Reefer Madness’ in middle school and never got over it,” Raskin said ahead of Friday’s vote.

“It's April Fools' Day, so maybe this is a joke,” Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., said in response to Raskin.

The House passed a version of the same bill in December 2020, but it stalled in the Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has said that marijuana legalization is a top priority, is working on a similar bill with Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., which they expect to unveil later this month.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stands beside a poster saying: End the Federal Cannabis Prohibition, Fix Our Criminal Justice System.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduces the draft of a Senate bill to end the federal cannabis prohibition on July 14, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

But any such bill requires 60 votes to pass the Senate, meaning that it would need support from at least 10 Republicans if all Democrats and independents voted in favor.

The bill would have broad public support. According to a Gallup poll conducted last fall, 68% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana — the highest percentage ever in Gallup's five decades of polling on the subject of cannabis. A Pew Research Poll released last April found that an overwhelming 91% of Americans support the legalization of medical marijuana.

Recreational marijuana use for adults is already legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, and has been decriminalized in 27. Medical marijuana is legal in 37 states and the District.

A woman, with her surgical mask pulled down below her chin, smokes a joint at a rally in Manhattan's Union Square to celebrate legalization of recreational marijuana in the state of New York.
A woman smokes a joint at a rally in Manhattan's Union Square on May 1, 2021, to celebrate the legalization of recreational marijuana in New York state. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)