House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is poised to push through legislation this week to end the federal prohibition on marijuana.
Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, said the vote to legalize pot would not only signal a major shift in U.S. policy, but also deliver a stinging rebuke of the 20th century’s “War on Drugs. ”
“This momentous step helps end the devastating injustices of the criminalization of marijuana that have disproportionately impacted low-income communities and communities of color, and reflects the overwhelming will of the American people,” the speaker said.
The bill would eliminate all federal criminal penalties for the distribution and possession of marijuana. It also removes the drug from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act, legalizing its manufacture and sale.
Apart from legalizing the drug, the legislation establishes a process to expunge the criminal records of people convicted for possessing and distributing marijuana under federal law.
The bill further mandates that judges review and reduce sentences for convicts currently serving federal prison sentences for marijuana-related crimes.
“This bill will not only put an end to harmful federal cannabis policies that have ruined countless lives, it will … reverse the damage by providing true equity and opportunity for those looking to access this booming industry,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat. “We are on our way toward true justice.”
The bill would end federal marijuana prohibition but does not touch state laws on the drug, though states have been repealing or relaxing their marijuana bans for more than a decade.
Eighteen states, including Alaska, Michigan and Virginia, have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Similarly, 37 states allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes.
Only three states — Idaho, Nebraska and Kansas — still ban the drug for all purposes.
Outside of the criminal justice system, Mrs. Pelosi’s bill imposes a new excise tax on marijuana products produced or imported for commercial sale.
It further makes federally-subsidized small business loans available for businesses trafficking marijuana and its related products.
The bill is expected to pass the House narrowly, much like it did in 2020. It faces long odds in the Senate where bipartisan opposition is mobilizing.
Republicans and even moderate Democrats say the bill goes too far. They note that the federal prison population constitutes very few individuals convicted for the possession of marijuana.
In 2017, for instance, only 92 out of 20,000 drug offenders were in federal prison for marijuana possession, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
“I think this is a terrible public policy,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, South Dakota Republican. “I have not changed my position on it.”
Other lawmakers even worry that legalization could make the opioid epidemic worse.
“I don’t support legalizing marijuana,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat. “We’re in the middle of an opioid epidemic, and the research that I’ve seen suggests that that is a way that more people get into drugs.”
Opposition to the legislation is even coming from lawmakers representing states that have legalized the drug.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, whose home state of Montana approved the recreational sale of marijuana in 2020, says that legalization would “cause more problems than it solves.”
While Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has pledged to bring the legislation to the floor, it is unlikely to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.