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House will vote on federal marijuana legalization for the first time, bill’s future in Senate uncertain

President Trump talked about Kenosha and how well it’s doing before his planned visit, but Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is urging him to ‘reconsider’ after a week of unrest. Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House will vote on legalizing marijuana at the federal level for the first time in the chamber’s history later this month, a hurdle Democrats and advocates are celebrating as Congress grapples with a host of pressing issues before the November election.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would vote on the MORE Act during the week of Sept. 21. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., would remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances and expunge some marijuana-related criminal records, though it would still be up to states to pass their own regulations on the sale of marijuana.

“It’s about time,” Nadler told USA TODAY, calling it a “historic vote” marking the beginning of the end of the federal government’s “40-year, very misguided crusade” against marijuana.

Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, a group advocating for the decriminalization of drugs, said her organization was “thrilled,” saying the bill would “begin to repair some of the harms caused by the war on drugs in communities of color and low-income communities.”

The House’s vote comes as views of marijuana have changed in Washington and increased numbers of Americans support the legalization of the drug, whether for recreational or medicinal purposes. And while this bill is likely to fail in the Republican-majority Senate, advocates still saw the vote as a step forward.

“I don’t even know if two years ago, I would have said that an act like this would have passed,” said Adam Goers, the vice president of corporate affairs at Columbia Care, which operates marijuana dispensaries across the country.

According to a 2019 Gallup survey, 66% of Americans supported legalization, though support did differ by party. More than three-quarters of Democrats said they supported legalization, as opposed to about half of Republicans.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., told USA TODAY, “the country has moved” its views on marijuana.

With Congress’ action, “there’s a recognition of where the states are, and we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to cannabis,” he said, referring to the states who have already legalized marijuana in some form. “And we just need to move forward with these pieces of legislation and get the federal and state laws to align with each other.”

Marijuana is currently regulated by a patchwork of laws at the state and federal levels, and Goers said legalization at the federal level would add “normalization” for businesses and states by legalizing marijuana at the federal level.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have legalized medical marijuana, but marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

Both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump declined to enforce federal prohibitions on marijuana against states that legalized it for recreational or medicinal use. As president, Obama supported the decriminalization of marijuana, though not its full legalization.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has called for the decriminalization of marijuana and the expunging of convictions for marijuana use, though he expressed skepticism about the legalization of the drug during the Democratic presidential primary. Biden’s website says he supports the legalization of medical marijuana and would leave decisions on recreational use up to the states.

The continued difference in laws at the federal and state level, is complicated for dispensaries and other marijuana-related businesses.

Many banks are less willing to work with dispensaries and other marijuana companies because of the federal ban, according to a report from the nonpartisan National Conference on State Legislatures. The inaccessibility of banks means many marijuana-based businesses are cash-only and are more vulnerable to theft.

A blanket federal legalization of marijuana would help add clarity and allow more marijuana-based businesses to access capital and banking, Goers said.

Nadler said he was sure the bill would pass the House, telling USA TODAY the bill had “probably unanimous” Democratic support and “considerable Republican support” but was unsure of its fate in the Senate.

The bill has one Republican cosponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, and 86 Democratic cosponsors.

For too long marijuana laws have been selectively enforced against people of color. I look forward to voting in support of the MORE Act which will expunge previous federal marijuana convictions and allow states to legalize marijuana. https://t.co/mTE6U1pNzi

Speaking on his “Hot Takes with Matt Gaetz” podcast, Gaetz called the bill’s removal of marijuana from the federal controlled substance list “absolutely a step in the right direction.”

Gaetz criticized a provision in the bill that creates a 5% sales tax on the sale of marijuana to fund community programs benefiting people previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses. The Florida Republican dismissed it as a form of “reparations” but said he would still vote for the bill when it came to the House floor.

Nadler said the provision was about “making people whole from harms suffered directly as a result of the marijuana ban,” which he noted had disproportionately affected racial minorities.

An ACLU report analyzing marijuana-related arrests from 2010 to 2018 found that Black people were 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the Democratic vice presidential nominee, introduced the Senate’s version of the bill, though it has not made any progress beyond the Senate Committee on Finance and has no Republican cosponsors.

Republican Finance Committee spokesperson Michael Zona told USA TODAY there was “no plan” to move forward on the Senate bill.

Despite the bill’s odds in the Senate, advocates were still pleased. The Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce called the planned vote the “greatest federal cannabis reform accomplishment in over 80 years.”

The vote on legalizing marijuana finds itself in the middle of a crowded legislative calendar and a bitterly divided Congress with only three weeks of session to pass crucial legislation before the Nov. 3 election. Congressional leaders and Trump’s White House appear no closer to a deal on more coronavirus relief than they were a month ago as millions struggle financially from the pandemic. Plus, the entire federal government shuts down if the two sides don’t pass a funding plan by the end of the month.

One House Republican expressed skepticism about the timing of the bill amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the midst of an increase in opioid addiction deaths during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems strange that the focus of House majority leadership would be to fully legalize marijuana, a known gateway drug to opioid addiction,” Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said in a statement. Harris criticized the bill for legalizing recreational marijuana and using “hard-earned taxpayer dollars to help subsidize the marijuana industry.”

A provision originally authored by Perlmutter allowing marijuana businesses to access banks was included in House Democrats’ $3.4 trillion COVID-19 relief package, but its inclusion was derided by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as part of “strange new special-interest carveouts for the marijuana industry” and is unlikely to be included in any final COVID-19 relief package.

"It's about time," Rep. Jerry Nadler told USA TODAY, calling it a "historic vote" although its future in the GOP-led Senate appears fraught.

Election Could Add Political Pressure to Lift Federal Marijuana Ban

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) — Voters in four states from different regions of the country could embrace broad legal marijuana sales on Election Day and a sweep would highlight how public acceptance of cannabis is cutting across geography, demographics and the nation’s deep political divide.

The Nov. 3 contests in New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota and Montana will shape policies in those states while the battle for control of Congress and the White House could determine whether marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

Already, most Americans live in states where marijuana is legal in some form and 11 now have fully legalized the drug for adults — Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. It’s also legal in Washington, D.C.

In conservative Mississippi, voters will consider competing ballot proposals that would legalize medicinal marijuana, which is allowed in 33 states.

Although California growers are believed to supply a large percentage of the marijuana consumed nationally, the federal prohibition means exports are illegal so growers who supply that demand are operating outside the state’s cannabis regulations.

Nick Kovacevich, CEO of KushCo Holdings, which supplies packaging, vape hardware and solvents for the industry, called the election “monumental” for the future of marijuana.

New Jersey, in particular, could prove a linchpin in the populous Northeast, leading New York and Pennsylvania toward broad legalization, he said.

“It’s laying out a domino effect … that’s going to unlock the largest area of population behind the West Coast,” Kovacevich said.

The cannabis initiatives will draw voters to the polls who could influence other races, including the tight U.S. Senate battle in Arizona.

In Colorado, one supporter of legal cannabis could lose his seat. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who is struggling in an increasingly Democratic state where some in the industry have lost faith in his ability to get things done in Washington.

Despite the spread of legalization in states and a largely hands-off approach under President Donald Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate has blocked cannabis reform, so under federal law marijuana remains illegal and in the same class as heroin or LSD. That has discouraged major banks from doing business with marijuana businesses, which also were left out in the coronavirus relief packages.

“Change doesn’t come from Washington but to Washington,” said Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “States are sending a clear message to the federal government that their constituencies want to see cannabis legalization.”

The presidential election could also influence federal marijuana policy, though the issue has been largely forgotten in a campaign dominated by the pandemic, health care and the nation’s wounded economy.

Trump’s position remains somewhat opaque. He has said he is inclined to support bipartisan efforts to ease the U.S. ban on marijuana but hasn’t established a clear position on broader legalization. He’s appointed attorneys general who loath marijuana, but his administration has not launched crackdowns against businesses in states where pot is legal.

Joe Biden has said he would decriminalize — but not legalize — the use of marijuana, while expunging all prior cannabis use convictions and ending jail time for drug use alone. But legalization advocates recall with disgust that he was a leading Senate supporter of a 1994 crime bill that sent droves of minor drug offenders to prison.

Even if there are lingering doubts about Biden, the Democratic Party is clearly more welcoming to cannabis reform, especially its progressive wing. Vice presidential nominee and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California has said making pot legal at the federal level is the “smart thing to do.”

Familiar arguments are playing out across the states.

Opponents fear children will be lured into use, roads will become drag strips for stoned drivers and widespread consumption will spike health care costs.

Those backing legalization point out the market is already here, though in many cases still thriving underground, and argue that products should be tested for safety. Legal sales would mean tax money for education and other services, and social-justice issues are also in play, after decades of enforcement during the war on drugs.

An added push this year could come from the virus-damaged economy — states are strapped for cash and legalized cannabis holds out the promise of a tax windfall. One Arizona estimate predicts $255 million a year would eventually flow for state and local governments, in Montana, $50 million.

Despite the pandemic and challenges including heavy taxes and regulation, marijuana sales are climbing. Arcview Market Research/BDSA expects U.S. sales to climb to $16.3 billion this year, up from $12.4 billion in 2019.

In New Jersey, voters are considering a constitutional amendment that would legalize marijuana use for people 21 and over. It’s attracted broad support in voter surveys. If approved, it’s unclear when shops would open. The amendment also subjects cannabis to the state’s sales tax, and lets towns and cities add local taxes.

The Arizona measure known as Proposition 207 would let people 21 and older possess up to an ounce or a smaller quantity of concentrates, allow for sales at licensed retailers and for people to grow their own plants. Retail sales could start in May. State voters narrowly rejected a previous legalization effort in 2016.

If Montana voters approve, sales would start in 2022. Montana passed a medicinal marijuana law in 2004 and updated it in 2016. The proposed law would allow only owners of current medical marijuana businesses to apply for licenses to grow and sell marijuana for the broader marketplace for the first year.

Perhaps no other state epitomizes changing views more than solidly conservative South Dakota, which has some of the country’s strictest drug laws.

The sparsely populated state could become the first to approve medicinal and adult-use marijuana at the same time. However, legalizing broad pot sales would be a jump for a state where lawmakers recently battled for nearly a year to legalize industrial hemp, a non-intoxicating cannabis plant.

Meanwhile, a confusing situation has unfolded in Mississippi, after more than 100,000 registered voters petitioned to put Initiative 65 on the ballot. It would allow patients to use medical marijuana to treat debilitating conditions, as certified by physicians. But legislators put an alternative on the ballot, which sponsors of the original proposal consider an attempt to scuttle their effort.

Hawkins is among those already looking toward 2021, when a new round of states could move toward legalization, including New York and New Mexico.

“There is clearly a tide,” Hawkins said. “We are moving toward a critical mass of states that … will bring about the end of federal prohibition on cannabis.”

© Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. CBS San Francisco contributed to this report

Voters in four states from different regions of the country could embrace broad legal marijuana sales on Election Day and a sweep would highlight how public acceptance of cannabis is cutting the nation’s deep political divide.