House bill calls for eliminating criminal penalties nationwide for manufacturing, distributing or possessing cannabis products.
US lawmakers have passed legislation that would legalize and tax marijuana sales, decriminalizing the drug nationwide after at least 18 states began allowing recreational use of cannabis within their boundaries over the past decade.
The House Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) was passed by the House in a 220-204 vote on Friday. All but two Democrats voted in favor of the bill, while all but three Republicans opposed the legislation. It will next head to the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) has pledged to introduce his own version of a marijuana-legalization bill by the end of this month.
“This landmark legislation is one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said before Friday’s vote.
If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the bill would make it legal to manufacture, distribute and possess cannabis products throughout the US. It would impose a federal tax on those products, starting at 5% and climbing to 8% over time, with revenue going toward social programs such as job training and substance-abuse treatment. The legislation would also help people with past marijuana convictions expunge those charges from their criminal records.
In addition to jurisdictions that have legalized recreational marijuana consumption, dozens of states have passed laws allowing medical use of the drug, starting with California in 1996.
Representative Barbara Lee (D-California) argued that the House legislation is about “racial justice,” citing an American Civil Liberties Union estimate that blacks are four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana-related crimes. “This is truly unjust, so we must end this failed policy of marijuana prohibition, which has led to the shattering of so many lives, primarily black and brown people,” she said.
Democrats may face an uphill battle to get marijuana legalization passed by the Senate. The party would need all of its senators as well as 10 Republican members to support the bill to preclude opponents from blocking a vote.