The House voted early Friday to halt federal prosecutions of medical marijuana users in states that have legalized the drug’s use with a doctor’s prescription, marking the first time a chamber of Congress has approved such a broad decriminalization.
The 219-189 vote wasn’t even particularly close, signaling a dramatic change in Congress on the issue of marijuana.
“This historic vote shows just how quickly marijuana reform has become a mainstream issue,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “If any political observers weren’t aware that the end of the war on marijuana is nearing, they just found out.”
Backers said the vote is a nudge to federal prosecutors that it’s time to move past the issue.
“The president in statements has said he has ‘bigger fish to fry,’ but there are 93 U.S. attorneys who are occasionally frying smaller fish,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrat. “There have been similar situations where people have been running legitimate — under state law — marijuana enterprises and they’ve got federal interference. It’s inappropriate.”
House lawmakers approved language ordering the federal Justice Department not to interfere in any way with states’ medicinal marijuana laws. The vote came as part of the debate on the annual spending bill for the Justice Department.
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Minutes earlier, the House also voted to stop federal interference with states that want to grow industrial hemp.
Both actions still need Senate approval to become law.
The first time medicinal marijuana received a vote in the House, on a non-binding resolution in 1998, it was defeated 311-94. Even just a few years ago, backers could only muster about 160 votes in favor of backing off prosecutions.
But both House lawmakers and the country as a whole have seen a major shift in attitudes in recent years, with a number of states approving laws allowing the drug’s use for medicinal purposes.
Voters in two states — Colorado and Washington — have approved pot use even for recreational purposes. Friday morning’s vote, however, only prohibits federal prosecutions for medical marijuana use. It applies to the District of Columbia and the following states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.