Did the US just Decriminalize Cannabis?

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Yesterday, headlines in the US and globally were filled with the announcement that the US House of Representatives has passed a law to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level. Surely this is cause for celebration, right? Well, actually no, not really. Just like the announcement of the UN rescheduling cannabis this last week, although it does show that cracks are forming in the dam, no water is getting through yet.

The reason why this seemingly historic bill passing is not necessarily a call for celebration is the structure of the United States Congress. Congress is made up of two branches, the first is the house of Representatives, made up by 435 members that represent each state based on population. Above them is the Senate, which is made up of two representatives from each state. When a new bill is created, it first passes a vote in the House, and then is supposed to move on to the Senate for a vote. However, in recent years this system does not seem to be working as it should, and new laws are not being passed.

What was in the Bill?

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) Act of 2019 (H.R 3884) was introduced by Housed Democrat Jerry Nadler of New York. This bill would effectively decriminalize cannabis by removing it (marijuana) from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act. It eliminates criminal penalties for anyone who possess, distributes, or manufactures the plant. Furthermore, it would greatly help out legal cannabis retailers – small business which provide jobs and tax revenue.

The bill would require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to record an publish data on cannabis businesses like all other businesses, to create a trust fund to help support programs in communities impacted by the war on drugs, impose a 5% federal cannabis tax, and provide small cannabis business with access to loans. It would also help to reverse some of the damage caused by the war on drugs by prohibiting previous convictions of restricting access to federal benefits and for immigration purposes, and creating a process to expunge conviction records. Lastly, the bill would create a Government Accountability Office to study the societal impact of cannabis legalization.

To many cannabis advocates, the bill is a first step, but a far cry from the major action desired, which would include banking, FDA oversight, labeling guidelines, and all the rights that are provided to tobacco and alcohol retailers. However, overturning nearly 100 years of American and global drug policy needs to be done incrementally, so the bill had great support. The bill passed with a vote of 228 to 164, with Republicans, Democrats and Independents all voting for it.

But, now that it has passed in the house with majority support from both all both parties and the American people, it is expected to die in the senate like every other cannabis bill brought there recently .

Why laws to decriminalize cannabis not being passed?

According to a Gallup polls from November 2020, 68% of Americans support the move to decriminalize cannabis. As we discussed in a  previous article, this time last year there were already 8 cannabis related bills that had already passed the House but would not be voted on in the Senate. The reason for this is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has the sole deciding power whether or not a bill is voted on, and has his own anti-cannabis agenda. This even includes bills that would only allow for more research into the plant.

But, it is not just cannabis that McConnell refuses to bring to vote, there are more than 400 bills which have passed a vote in the House, but have not been put before the Senate. That is 400 bills that state representatives thought where important enough to write and vote on, but that one man, who is voted in by only one state, can stand in the way of. In fact, in terms of bills passed, this has been the least productive congress in 50 years , during a time of unprecedented natural disasters and public health issues.

What could happen next?

The most likely outcome will be that this bill moves to the Senate this year and is killed by majority leader Mitch McConnell and never brought to a vote. However, there are several other outcomes that are possible, both relying on the state of Georgia. Georgia will host elections on January 5th to decide two senate seats. Currently they have two Republicans, but if they changed just one than the senate would be tied, and Vice President Elect Kamala Harris would get to decide. Or, Georgia could vote in two Democrats and overturn the Senate, removing Mitch McConnell as Majority Leader. Either way, this Bill, and this race, really depends on Georgia.

But there is a bigger problem that has been highlighted by this, and many other bills that have failed to pass over the last 4 years. That is that due to flaws in the structure of the US government, one person can have the ability to control which laws are brought to a vote or not, effectively letting one person decide their fate. This is undemocratic, and surely not what the founding fathers had in mind when setting up a government so reliant on checks and balances. New laws need to be written to prevent the next Mitch McConnell.

One way to do this would be to require that any bill which get a majority vote in one house of congress must be brought to a vote in the other. In this way, no popular bills could be held up or killed before being brought to a vote. The second way to reduce this issue would be to require that all negotiations for bills and votes are done in public. This would create more accountability, so that the people would know how their representatives were negotiating on bills that are never brought to vote, and hold them accountable.

While this bill is not much to celebrate right now in the fight to decriminalize cannabis, it shows that the conversation has begun. It shows that the propaganda and misinformation that perpetrated and supported the failed war on drugs is beginning to break down. And it gives hope to all those fighting for their right to access natural and democratically produced medicines or explore their consciousness without limitations from the government that was set-up to represent them, not to control them.

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