US House of Representatives votes to federally decriminalise marijuana

4 December 2020, 21:57

The House has voted to approve a Bill to federally decriminalise marijuana
The House has voted to approve a Bill to federally decriminalise marijuana. Picture: Getty
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives has voted to decriminalise marijuana at the federal level.

It marks the first time in congressional history that the lower chamber has approved the decriminalisation of cannabis.

The vote passed by 228-164 with most representatives sticking to party lines. Just five Republicans voted in favour of the Bill, while six Democrats opposed it.

However, the proposed legislation is unlikely to immediately become law as it now needs to advance through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of the Bill said it would "address the devastating injustices caused by the War on Drugs" which the US has been fighting since the early 1970s.

The measure would remove marijuana from the list of federally criminalised substances but still allow states to set their own laws on the drug.

Read more: New Jersey and Arizona vote to legalise marijuana

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It would also see money from an excise tax on marijuana pumped into helping those harmed by the drug war, while also giving provisions for overruling and erasing federal cannabis convictions and arrests.

Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a key sponsor of the bill Jerry Nadler said: "For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health.

"Whatever one's views are on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, the policy of arrests, prosecution and incarceration at the federal level has proven unwise and unjust."

However, opponents called the proposed legislation a hollow political gesture and criticised Democrats for raising the issue at a time when thousands of Americans are dying as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

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"With all the challenges America has right now, (Republicans) think Covid relief should be on the floor, but instead, the Democrats put cats and cannabis on the House floor," said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

"They're picking weed over the workers. They're picking marijuana over (providing) the much-needed money we need to go forward to address the pandemic."

Democrats responded by saying they can focus on Covid relief and marijuana simultaneously and raised the House passing a major pandemic relief Bill in May that has since sat dormant in the Senate.

Mr McCarthy's comment about cats referred to separate legislation approved by the House to ban private ownership of big cats such as lions and tigers, a measure boosted by the Netflix series Tiger King.

That Bill, approved by the House on Thursday, would permit most private zoos to keep their big cats but would prohibit most public contact with the animals.

Most US citizens live in states where cannabis is legal in some form and lawmakers representing both parties agree that the country's policy on the drug has lagged behind changes made at state-level.

The divergence in state and federal laws has meant that marijuana companies struggle to get loans or other banking services due to the substance being illegal at a federal level.

Four states, including New Jersey and Arizona, recently passed referendums allowing recreational cannabis, while voters in Oregon made it the first state to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.