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House poised to pass bill legalizing marijuana

AP-Paul Sancya

The House is poised to pass legislation this week that would legalize marijuana, just the latest example of the swiftly changing attitudes on drug laws that marks a near reversal from the Reagan-era war on drugs that also reverberated through the 1990s.

The bill legalizing marijuana has near-uniform support among Democrats and a top ally in Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who has been aiming to introduce a similar measure this spring.

And it’s just one of several pieces of legislation that underlines the shift in Congress’s attitude — a change that has come about in part because of the way past drug laws have disproportionately hit minority communities.

“This Congress represents a sea change,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

“What we have seen is that the majority of people now realize that the war on drugs failed,” Blumenauer told The Hill. “Drugs are more accessible and cheaper and more potent and dangerous. Nobody won this war, except people who were involved with the drug dealers themselves.”

The House has voted twice in the past year, most recently as part of legislation to bolster U.S. competitiveness, to enable legally operating cannabis businesses to use banking services and credit cards instead of having to function as cash-only. 

On Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill to expand scientific and medical research on marijuana and its compounds, including cannabidiol.  

The flurry of action in Congress isn’t limited to marijuana legalization.  

The House passed a bipartisan bill last fall — by a margin of 361-66 — to eliminate the federal disparity in prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses. All of the votes in opposition were from Republicans, but a majority of the House GOP overall joined all Democrats in support. 

The issue was also raised in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who asked nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson if she agreed there should be no such disparity in sentencing.

The bill, titled the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, or EQUAL Act, also has the support of law enforcement organizations like the Major Cities Chiefs Association and conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) became the 10th Senate Republican to back the legislation, paving the way for likely passage in the upper chamber. Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a frequent centrist swing vote, also signed on to the bill in recent days.

“I think they understand we we’ve got to take a more innovative path. We need to understand addiction. We can’t just incarcerate our way out of these problems. And we sure can’t continue to turn a blind eye to an egregious injustice, like this crack-powder disparity,” said Holly Harris, president of the Justice Action Network, which advocates for criminal justice reform. 

The lower price of crack cocaine — which is typically smoked — meant that it has historically been more easily accessible to people in marginalized lower-income communities, compared to powder cocaine that is snorted through the nose.  

The U.S. Sentencing Commission found in 2020 that 77 percent of crack cocaine trafficking offenders were Black, compared to 6 percent who were white.  

The sentencing disparity stems from a 1986 law signed by then-President Reagan as part of the war on drugs that established a five-year minimum sentence for possession of at least five grams of crack cocaine. But an individual would have to possess at least 500 grams of powder cocaine to face the same sentence.  

Lawmakers reduced the sentencing disparity for pending and future cases through the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, but didn’t fully eliminate it. 

Schumer’s office didn’t immediately respond to questions about when the bill could come up for a vote in the Senate. 

The broader support in Congress for reversing the policies meant to crack down on drug use is reflective of public opinion. 

Polling shows that the American public supports legalizing marijuana by large margins. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 91 percent of U.S. adults believe that marijuana should be legal to at least some extent, with most stating it should be legal for medical and recreational use. 

At least 37 states, four territories and the District of Columbia allow cannabis products for medical use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Cannabis is also allowed for nonmedical use in 18 states, two territories and the nation’s capital. 

Schumer has also been soliciting input from colleagues ahead of introducing a marijuana legalization bill, which he previously said could come this spring. 

Cannabis industry advocates, meanwhile, have been urging lawmakers to pass the SAFE Banking Act to allow marijuana businesses to use banking services, since it is more likely to secure bipartisan support. 

The legislation set for a House vote, titled the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, would eliminate criminal penalties associated with marijuana. 

It would further establish a process to expunge the convictions of nonviolent marijuana offenders and fund programs to help communities negatively affected by the war on drugs by imposing a federal tax on marijuana sales.

In a notice to lawmakers announcing the vote, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) hailed it as “critical legislation that will restore justice to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by harsh penalties for possessing even small amounts of marijuana.” 

Only five Republicans backed the legislation when it came up for a House vote in December 2020, while six Democrats voted against it. One of those Republicans, the late Rep. Don Young (Alaska), who served as a Cannabis Caucus co-chair, died last week. 

“The margin might be tighter,” Blumenauer said of next week’s vote. “But I’m optimistic, and I’m just really pleased that the House Judiciary Committee moved forward with keeping this front and center.”  

Tags Charles Schumer Don Young drug laws Earl Blumenauer Joe Manchin John Kennedy Ketanji Brown Jackson marijuana legalization Richard Burr Steny Hoyer War on Drugs

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