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Flowering cannabis plants grow beneath LED lights
Flowering cannabis plants grow beneath LED lights in one of several Flower Rooms at CommCans manufacturing facility in Medway, Mass. on Oct. 27, 2021.Erin Clark / Boston Globe via Getty Images, file

Dems advance landmark marijuana legalization bill in House

For decades, the “war on drugs” only moved in one punitive direction. As the House passes a bill to legalize marijuana, it’s a new day.


For decades, the United States’ “war on drugs” only moved in one punitive direction. Even elected officials who knew better felt compelled to go along, because the alternative was facing an expected public backlash, with allegations of being “soft on drugs” or “soft on crime.”

The politics of the issue have changed quickly, however, in ways that were difficult to predict in the recent past. As regular readers may recall, it was in December 2020 when the Democratic-led House approved legislation to decriminalize cannabis and clear the way to erase nonviolent federal marijuana convictions. The bill was ignored in the Republican-led Senate, but it was a historic breakthrough: This was the first time either chamber had ever even tried to pass such a bill.

This morning, as NBC News reported, an updated version of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) also passed the House.

The House passed legislation Friday that would legalize marijuana nationwide, eliminating criminal penalties for anyone who manufactures, distributes or possesses the substance.... In addition to decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level, the bill would establish procedures for expunging previous convictions from people’s records and impose a tax on the sale of cannabis products.

The final tally was 220 to 204, and while the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans voted with their parties, there were a handful of exceptions. Three Republicans — Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Florida’s Brian Mast, and California’s Tom McClintock — with the Democratic majority, and two Democrats — Texas’ Henry Cueller and New Hampshire’s Chris Pappas — voted with the GOP.

The bill now heads to the evenly divided Senate, where it faces long odds. Democratic leaders are fully on board with major reforms to existing marijuana laws, but they’ll need at least 10 Republican senators to overcome a GOP filibuster, and that seems unrealistic.

That said, major reform efforts hardly ever pass quickly. The fact that the House has now passed this bill twice, and Senate Democratic leaders are now championing such legislation, helps change the conversation and lays the groundwork for future progress.

It also helps reflect a shifting landscape. As we’ve discussed, a decade ago, the total number of states allowing recreational marijuana was zero, and leading members of Congress wanted nothing to do with proposals such as the MORE Act. Now, 18 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana, 37 states have legalized medical marijuana, and the Democratic leadership in both chambers are enthusiastic proponents of dramatically overhauling the status quo on pot.

What’s more, I’m struck by the pushback — which is to say, the lack of pushback. There was a time when members of Congress who might have been tempted to support such legislation kept their position under wraps, fearing hysterical attacks from the right.

That time has passed. Today’s House bill probably won’t become law this year, but it’s notable that the legislation also generated very little public criticism from the right — which serves as a reminder that public opinion appears to be on reformers’ side, discouraging GOP attacks.