The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Friday, Dec. 4, in favor of a bill that would decriminalize marijuana and expunge convictions for nonviolent marijuana-related charges at the federal level. This move comes amidst growing public acceptance of marijuana’s health benefits and its usage, as well as a growing sentiment to repair decades of drug crackdowns that disproportionately criminalized low-income Black and brown individuals.
While the legislation is not expected to pass the current Republican-held Senate, the House’s bipartisan 228–164 vote is still significant and marks the first time either chamber of Congress supported the decriminalization of marijuana. In addition to removing the drug from the Controlled Substances Act, experts say legalized marijuana could be a windfall for state economies, increasing agriculture and new businesses and creating up to 1.6 million new jobs according to New Frontier Data. If passed, the measure would also implement a 5% tax on marijuana sales, pulling in an estimated $5 billion dollars which could be used to fund community and small business grant programs intended to help communities most harmed by the war on drugs. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that if legalized, marijuana sales could generate an incredible $13.7 billion in net revenue for the U.S. treasury over the next decade.
Despite these potential boons, the bill will most likely die in the Senate, where Republican leaders have dismissed it as a distraction from passing a coronavirus relief package. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are finally working to compromise on the measures of the COVID-19 relief package after months of it being blocked due to partisan disagreement on the size and breadth of the bill.
Still, the marijuana bill’s passage in the House remains a historic moment for countless reasons, including the long-needed acknowledgement of the fact that our current policing of the substance has been historically racist and unjust. The numbers don’t lie: Black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, despite both groups using the substance at roughly the same rate. California Rep. Barbara Lee, who co-sponsored the bill, spoke to the issue on the House floor prior to Friday’s vote.
“Black and Brown people are targeted more frequently than white Americans despite equal rates of use,” she said. “Additionally, prison sentences for Black and Brown people are more likely to be lengthier than white people. Black men receive sentences over 13% longer than white men, and nearly 80% of people in federal prisons for drug offenses are Black or Latino.”
If passed, the law would require federal courts to release people serving sentences for nonviolent, marijuana-related offenses. According to CBO estimates, those changes “would reduce time served by 73,000 person-years” among current and future inmates, reducing prison system operating expenses by up to $1 billion over the next decade as well.
The provision would also help to set up grant programs that would fund job training, legal aid, substance-use treatments and small businesses in the marijuana industry led by low-income and minority business owners. It would also allow doctors within the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe medical marijuana to treat their patients for the first time.
The bill lays out how the government would go about expunging marijuana convictions for not serving a criminal justice sentence. It says each federal district would conduct a comprehensive review and issue an order expunging each conviction or juvenile delinquency adjudication on the federal level before the enactment of the act dating back to 1971. Each federal court would also issue an order expunging any arrests associated with convictions or juvenile adjudications. Each federal district will also work to notify any individual of their expungement and grant people the right to petition for expungement. There would also be an opportunity for resentencing for those currently serving time for marijuana offenses.
Currently, marijuana is only completely illegal in six states, with the rest having some degree of decriminalization, legalization or availability for medical use. The fifteen states (plus the District of Columbia) where marijuana is fully legal include a mix of Republic and Democratic-led state leaderships. Five Republicans and one Libertarian (Justin Amash of Michigan) supported the bill. Some, like Matt Gaetz from Florida, aired their complaints publicly before ultimately voting in favor of the bill.
“I prefer my marijuana reform not dipped in reparations policy, frankly,” he said.
However, reparations — a system of redress for racial injustice — are exactly the point for many Democrats. After the vote, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota took to Twitter, reminding people not to underestimate the power of community organizing.
The House just voted to federally decriminalize marijuana and expunge nonviolent federal marijuana convictions.
Don't let anyone tell you that organizing doesn't matter.
— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) December 4, 2020
“In order to dismantle systemic racism, we must radically transform our approach to criminal justice and invest in restorative justice practices,” Omar tweeted.