House votes to legalize cannabis, but Senate has its own ideas

The House passed a bill to legalize marijuana for the second consecutive Congress, signaling a continued interest by Democrats in overhauling the federal approach to a substance that is legal for medical use in 37 states.

The 220-204 vote on the bill, which would decriminalize the possession and use of marijuana, fell mostly along party lines Friday. Three Republicans voted in favor of the bill, and two Democrats voted against.

When a similar bill passed in 2020, the GOP-controlled Senate declined to take it up, but lawmakers are hopeful that growing public support and a Democratic majority in the chamber could spur action.

“The Senate works with its own schedule,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat. “We’ve talked to a number of people in terms of their support for this, but I’ve only been here 20 years, and I do not pretend to understand the ways of the Senate.”

Sen. Cory Booker said earlier this week that moving the House bill would be unlikely and senators are focusing on their own proposal.

“Right now we’re looking at doing the one that we’ve been working on for a long time,” said the New Jersey Democrat, referring to a discussion draft released last year with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. That draft contained a similar tax regime to what is imposed on alcohol and tobacco.

The House bill and Senate proposal differ on how to impose excise taxes for marijuana importers and distributors. Senators sought to set the rate at 10 percent, and it would rise to 25 percent over five years. Advocacy and industry groups argue the rate would be too high, even though proposed tax credits would halve that rate for small businesses.

The House bill calls for a 5 percent rate that would inch up to 8 percent over five years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the House bill could generate $8.1 billion by 2031, some of which would be used to fund programs in communities most affected by the war on drugs. It would also create a process for some people to get federal cannabis convictions expunged and sentences reviewed.

“It’s just very encouraging that there is an appetite not just to decriminalize at the federal level, but really do restorative justice — things that are very important,” Booker said.

Booker said it could be tough finding 60 votes in the Senate, but supporters’ best bet would be to package it with provisions that have been favorably received by the GOP. That includes House-passed legislation to give banks the ability to provide services to legitimate cannabis-related businesses.

The Senate has not yet taken up the bill, and Booker said the financial and criminal justice components shouldn’t be separated.

“If we get that done, you lose a valuable sweetener to get the restorative justice,” he said. “It’s really important that we don’t break this up, or else we’re going to really lose a chance to alleviate a stress for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who introduced the House banking bill, said he sees a path forward on it but isn’t sure if there are enough votes for more sweeping legislation like the so-called MORE Act the House passed Friday.

“I think safe banking is still in the mix. But if MORE or something like MORE passes, then that’s fine,” said the Colorado Democrat. “It resolves the question.”

Booker said he hopes the Senate proposal could be released close to April 20, an unofficial holiday for marijuana enthusiasts to celebrate the substance that’s still listed as Schedule I on the federal level. Those substances are defined as having high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. Other drugs in that category include heroin, peyote and ecstasy.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the House bill’s main sponsor, said during Friday’s debate that it would treat marijuana as a public health issue, not a criminal one. It begins to rectify a “heavy toll” that criminalizing marijuana has taken, particularly on communities of color and low-income communities.

The House bill also would replace all statutory references to “marijuana” and “marihuana” with the word “cannabis.”

Republicans pushed back on the bill, arguing that it doesn’t sufficiently address the question of what the legal age for use should be; the differences between marijuana and hemp, a concern among agriculture interests; and use among motorists.

“My friends — many of them in the law enforcement space, including my brother, a former county sheriff — have said this is a huge problem where we don’t know when people are driving impaired,” said Rep. Cliff Bentz, an Oregon Republican. “Why are we broadening this problem when we don’t know how to charge those who are driving under the influence?”

When the bill was advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee, two Republicans — Matt Gaetz of Florida, who is the only GOP co-sponsor, and Tom McClintock of California — got on board with Democrats. They both re-upped their support for the floor vote Friday, and they were joined by Florida Republican Rep. Brian Mast.

Democratic Reps. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire and Henry Cuellar of Texas voted against it.

Momentum for change has been building at the state level. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia had legalized recreational use as of February, while a total of 37 states and D.C. allowed medical marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A 2021 Pew survey found that 91 percent of U.S. adults polled supported some form of legalization, although 31 percent said it should be for medical use only.

The House adopted several amendments to the bill before voting on final passage. Two of those amendments would authorize studies to look into how law enforcement could determine whether motorists are driving high and how legalization would affect the workplace and school-age children.

An amendment put forth by Rep. Jamie Raskin called for a prohibition on denying or revoking security clearances based on past or present marijuana use, but it was narrowly rejected. Several White House officials lost their jobs last year because of past marijuana use.

The time has come for the federal government to recognize the inevitable, the Maryland Democrat said.

“Most people live in states where marijuana has either been legalized, decriminalized or made lawful for medicinal use,” Raskin said. “We’ve got to make sure that our laws start to catch up.”

Laura Weiss and Jim Saksa contributed to this report.

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