U.S. House committee approves marijuana legalization bill; what comes next?

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would legalize marijuana at the federal level.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or MORE, would remove marijuana from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, where it is classified alongside heroin and LSD. The bill was approved with a 24-10 vote.

The legislation would also:

  • Allow states to create their own policies on marijuana
  • Require federal courts to clear low-level marijuana convictions
  • Place a 5% tax on marijuana products

The proposed tax would establish funds for programs designed to help people disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. This may include job training, legal assistance and treatment for substance abuse.

"For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of a matter of personal choice and public health,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. “Whatever one's views on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating users at the federal level is unwise and unjust.”

Will the bill go anywhere?

The bill has a high chance of approval in the full House, where Democrats have control. It is unclear when such a vote would take place. The proposal would be less likely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opposes marijuana legalization.

“I don’t think a majority of the Republicans will support this bill,” said Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo. “It is even less likely that the Senate would take it up. Therefore, I would just suggest that we deal with other bills that we can get a much larger bipartisan support from.”

Nadler acknowledged that Republicans would be unlikely to take the bill “as is,” adding, “When the House passes a bill, it’s part of a continuing process.”

If the bill makes it through Congress, it would still have to be signed by the president to become law. President Donald Trump has expressed that he wants to leave the decision of marijuana legalization up to the states.

“We’re going to see what’s going on. It’s a very big subject and right now we are allowing states to make that decision,” Trump told reporters in August. “A lot of states are making that decision, but we’re allowing states to make that decision.”

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Michigan voted to make it legal last year.

How do Americans view legalization?

Two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization, according to Pew data released this month. This shows a significant change over the past decade, with the number of Americans opposed to marijuana falling from 52 percent in 2010 to 32 percent today.

There remain wide partisan and generational differences in views on marijuana legalization.

The majority of Millenials, Gen Xers and Boomers say marijuana use should be legal. 64 percent of the Silent Generation remain opposed.

  • Millenial: 76% support
  • Gen X: 65% support
  • Boomer: 63% support
  • Silent: 35% support

Nearly eight-in-ten left-leaning Americans believe marijuana should be legal, compared with 55 percent of right-leaning Americans. Millenial Republicans, however, were found to be broadly in support of legalization—71 percent said they were in favor.

The cost of the war on marijuana

Between 2001 and 2010, police made more than 8.2 million arrests for marijuana possession that cost about $3.6 billion per year, according to a 2013 ACLU report. This breaks down to about $4,400 of tax dollars spent for every arrest. During that period, marijuana possession arrests accounted for nearly half (46%) of all drug arrests.

The same ACLU report pointed out significant racial disparities in marijuana policing. It was found that, on average, a black person is 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, despite rates of marijuana use being similar across racial demographics. In the worst offending counties across the country, blacks were over 10-30 times more likely to be arrested than white residents in the same county.

In the courtroom, black male offenders on average receive sentences 19.1 percent longer than white men who committed similar crimes, according to a 2017 report from the US Sentencing Commission.

The MORE Act hopes to correct these racial disparities by requiring the Bureau of Labor Statistics to collect data on the demographics of the marijuana industry. Lawmakers in favor of the legislation hope this will ensure that people of color and those who are economically disadvantaged are participating in the industry.

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