Wednesday's marijuana legalization vote was truly historic — here's why

On Wednesday, members of Congress did something that they had never done before. For the first time ever, a body of the U.S. Congress voted to end cannabis’s nearly century-long status as a federally prohibited substance.

By a vote of more than two to one, members of the United States House Judiciary Committee passed legislation, House Bill 3884: The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act. 

The MORE Act removes the marijuana plant from the federal Controlled Substances Act, thereby enabling states to enact their own cannabis regulations free from undue federal interference. The vote marks the first time that members of Congress have ever voted to federally deschedule cannabis. 

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According to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll, 70 percent of U.S. voters support this policy change. To date, 33 states have enacted laws regulating patients’ access to medical cannabis and nearly one in four Americans reside in a state where the adult use of marijuana is permitted. 

It is inappropriate for the federal government to continue to either interfere with or stand in the way of these voter-initiated policies. 

Members' decision to move forward with the MORE Act is significant. This act is the most comprehensive marijuana reform bill ever introduced in Congress, and it’s backed by a broad coalition of civil rights, criminal justice, drug policy, and immigration groups.

This legislation seeks to address the millions of Americans who suffer from the stigma and lost opportunities associated with a low-level marijuana possession conviction. It provides funding and inducements to states to enact policies that expunge these criminal convictions from citizens’ records so that they can more successfully move on with their lives. 

And it also seeks to assist America’s military veterans by, for the first time, permitting physicians associated with the Veterans Administration the authority to recommend medical cannabis therapy to patients who reside in legal marijuana states.

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It also permits those players in the existing state-legal marijuana industry access to banking and other necessary financial services. 

Currently, federal law mandates that this multibillion dollar industry operate on a cash-only basis — an environment that makes businesses more susceptible to theft and more difficult to audit. Growing a successful business is hard enough. Doing so without access to banking and credit is even tougher. The MORE Act ensures that these state-compliant businesses, and those millions of Americans who patronize them, are no longer subject to policies that needlessly place them in harm’s way.

Commenting on the bill just prior to the vote, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerJudiciary members battle over whether GOP treated fairly in impeachment hearings Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers MORE (D-N.Y.) acknowledged that more than two in three Americans believe that the adult use of cannabis ought to be legal, according to the most recent national polling. He added: “States have led the way and continue to lead the way, but our federal laws have not kept pace with the obvious need for change. We need to catch up because of public support [in favor of legalizing marijuana] and because it is the right thing to do.”

It is for these reasons that members of the full House should now take up this issue on the House floor. Not only does this bill reverse the failed prohibition of cannabis, but it also provides pathways for opportunity and ownership in the emerging industry for those who have suffered the most under federal criminalization. 

It is time for Congress to right the past wrongs of the federal war on marijuana and for every member to show their constituents which side of history they stand on.

Justin Strekal is the political director for NORML, where he serves as an advocate to end the federal prohibition of marijuana and to reform our nation's laws to no longer discriminate against its consumers.