Long-shot bill to decriminalize pot passes key committee of Congress

But it’s the 2020 presidential election that could be the most consequential vote for legalization in the U.S.

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A long-shot bill to decriminalize marijuana in the U.S. got one step closer to becoming law on Wednesday. 

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in a 24-10 vote. Its key provision is to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level by removing it from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. 

The bill includes other key terms. Among them: providing states with incentives to expunge conviction records for pot. And a five per cent tax to fund programs for folks affected by the war on drugs. 

The bad news is that it’s only one of more than half a dozen votes that will be needed before the bill makes it to Congress. Still, it’s hard to overstate its significance. For the first time ever, Congress has given an official nod to decriminalization. 

Pot activists are declaring it a massive victory. NORML executive director Erik Altieri calls the vote “a truly historic moment.”  

The reliably liberal Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler described the win in social terms. He called the incarceration of cannabis users “unwise and unjust.”

There’s little enthusiasm for decriminalization in the Senate where the Republicans run things. But Nadler believes that the tide in public opinion may shift things there, too. He told MarketWatch that “The energy and the political pressure from the various states is growing rapidly.”

A number of things will have to happen before the bill even gets to the Senate. Seven more House committees will need to approve the bill. Then it will have to be voted on by the House of Representatives. 

That said, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell seems to be warming to the idea of decriminalization. He took a trip to California earlier this fall to meet with cannabis executives to discuss banking reform. McConnell may not like weed, but he does like banks and making money.

The Judiciary Committee’s vote comes at a time when the contradictions of prohibition have never been clearer in the United States.

The enforcement of pot laws has never been stricter, despite the fact that cannabis for medical purposes is legal in a majority of states. More than 663,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offenses in 2018. The number marks a three-year high. 

So what’s next for the bill? Even if everything goes well, this week’s vote may not be the most consequential for legalization.

With much of the Democratic primary field supportive of redrawing the country’s weed laws – and Trump’s presidency mired in impeachment proceedings –  it’s the 2020 presidential election that could be the most important vote for legalization. 

But for now, small victories are still victories. 

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