U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon, speaks at a recent Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)
The U.S. House passed legislation Friday to legalize marijuana nationally, but its future is much less clear in the Senate.
The House voted 220-204 to approve the measure, which would fix the split between federal law and 19 states where recreational marijuana is legal. Three Republicans joined all but two Democrats in approving the measure.
Matt Gaetz and Brian Mast of Florida and Tom McClintock of California were the Republicans who voted yes. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire and Henry Cuellar of Texas were the Democrats who opposed the bill.
U.S. Reps. Ted Budd, R-N.C., Mike Johnson, R-La., Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., and Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., did not vote.
The House bill would remove marijuana from the controlled substances list, expunge convictions for federal marijuana crimes and add a 5% federal sales tax that would fund programs meant to improve communities harmed by marijuana prohibition.
The Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is a major supporter of legalization, did not take up a previous version of the bill that the House passed in 2020.
Schumer, along with Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon, sent a letter to the rest of the Senate in February asking for help writing a legalization bill in that chamber.
In a tweet after the House vote Friday, Wyden said that “it’s past time for Congress to listen to the will of the voters.”
Democratic backers in the House emphasized its racial justice components. People of color are more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana crimes, even though they use the drug at similar rates as white people.
“Despite changes in state laws and social norms, as I have said, its use remains illegal under federal law, often resulting in devastating consequences … for Black, Latino and Native communities,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said on the House floor Friday.
The bill would raise potentially hundreds of millions in new tax dollars annually and use them to fund local grant programs for job-training, literacy, youth recreation and more. It would also provide loans for small businesses for legitimate marijuana enterprises.
“We have a long journey ahead to achieve social justice and criminal justice reform,” U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, a Louisiana Democrat, said. “The war on marijuana is a costly relic of the past.”
Republicans raised a litany of objections to the bill. Congress should focus on inflation, illegal immigration, crime and the war in Ukraine, rather than legalizing marijuana, several GOP members said.
“Record gas prices, record number of illegal immigrants crossing our Southern border, and what are Democrats doing today?” Ohio Republican Jim Jordan said. “Legalizing drugs and using American tax dollars to kick-start and prop up the marijuana industry. Wow, what a deal for the American people.”
U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, who led the Republican debate against the bill, said local police in his southern Oregon, in his district, were overwhelmed by cartels that continued marijuana operations even after the state legalized it.
Law enforcement officials say marijuana grown in Oregon operations is being shipped to East Coast markets, where marijuana largely remains illegal under state laws.
The bill sets up penalties for failing to properly register a marijuana business but does not include any money to enforce that provision, he said.
The taxes on growers in the bill would also mean the price of legal marijuana would be about 30% higher than black-market products, leaving illegal growers with a still-lucrative market, Bentz said.
He warned that cartels would expand their reach across the U.S.
While Bentz said it has long been apparent legalization would come eventually, the current effort was “the wrong approach.”
Longtime legalization advocate U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, said he agreed with Bentz about the problems associated with illegal marijuana production in their home state, which include mistreatment of immigrant laborers on illegal growing operations and black market marijuana.
But Blumenauer disagreed about the remedy.
Federally legalizing the drug and regulating the industry would help solve the problems Bentz raised, Blumenauer said.
“The problem of the cartels, the illegal activity, the black market, is a result of the fact that the federal government does not have its act together,” he said. “People across the country have acted to take it into their own hands. And as a result, we have a piecemeal approach.”
States legalize marijuana
While nearly every state has legalized or decriminalized marijuana to some degree, more are moving toward full legalization. The Maryland Senate approved a legalization bill Thursday.
But advocates for federal legalization say the state-by-state approach has led to myriad problems.
New Jersey’s legal market has been delayed for months after voters approved it in 2020. Though some have said the Garden State’s pace is unacceptably slow, states generally have taken a long time to set up legal markets.
States are still dealing with legal gaps, like Louisiana laws that prohibit driving under the influence but do not expressly ban smoking marijuana in a moving vehicle.
Republicans argued the measure would not reduce crime, but Democrats said the bill would free authorities to pursue more serious offenses.
“Decriminalizing means cops spend less time busting people for marijuana possession and more time looking for people committing violent crime,” Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen said. “That’s a better use of law enforcement time.”
Drivers impaired by marijuana
The House approved two amendments to the bill from moderate Democrats and defeated one from a more progressive member.
New Jersey Democrat Josh Gottheimer’s amendment that would provide $10 million to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop methods to determine if a driver is impaired by marijuana passed.
The House also approved an amendment sponsored by Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania that would commission a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on the impact of marijuana legalization in the workplace.
The House defeated an amendment from Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin that would have stopped federal agencies from making marijuana use a reason for denying a security clearance.
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