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'Congress starts to catch up to where public is,' he says after House vote Friday.

FILE - U.S. Rep. Earl BlumenauerU.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer praised House approval of legislation he has long advocated to end the federal prohibition on marijuana and restore the rights of racial and ethnic minorities who were affected by selective enforcement of the law.

The veteran Oregon Democrat also says the bill will remove legal and financial barriers for emerging cannabis businesses and minority participation in them. It also removes from the law its Schedule I designation, which puts it in a category of drugs deemed to have no medical value.

Blumenauer and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California spoke to reporters via conference call Friday, Dec. 4, after the 228-164 vote on HR 3884 that fell mostly along party lines. It was significant because it marks the first time either house of Congress has voted to end the longstanding prohibition of marijuana.

But both also said there is more work to go in the Senate — where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ridiculed the bill publicly as recently as Thursday — and presidential approval. That will have to await a new Congress and president next year.

Blumenauer, who has been in the House since 1996, said:

"We've had problems on this failed war on drugs in terms of equality for young Black and Brown Americans, denying access to therapies, choking off opportunities for research, and getting in the way of what should be thriving local businesses by having the federal government interfere.

"It is going to make a huge difference for people all across America as Congress starts to catch up to where the American public is."

Lee, an African American who has represented a Bay Area district since 1999, said the vote was appropriate for a year notable for its public calls for racial justice.

"There is no better way to close out this year than to begin to atone for the destructive policies brought on by the failed war on drugs," she said.

She said the prohibition still accounts for 600,000 arrests annually, despite changes in state laws — and that Black men receive disproportionately longer federal sentences than whites, and Latinos are more likely than whites to receive sentences for possession.

Changing laws

The criminal justice provisions of the bill, known as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act:

• Requires federal courts to expunge marijuana arrests and convictions and resentence those still in custody or under court supervision for a marijuana offense, pursuant to a judicial review process.

• Makes clear that marijuana is no longer classified under the law as a controlled substance, violations of which are the most common cause for deportations of immigrants.

• Provides nondiscrimination protections for marijuana use or possession and for prior convictions for a marijuana offense.

• Ensures that all benefits in the law are available to juveniles arrested and convicted.

The bill also would impose a 5% federal tax on marijuana sales, in addition to state and local taxes, to raise money for reentry programs for former offenders and drug treatment.

Marijuana has been illegal under federal law for years. The no-medical-use designation dates back to the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. The overall prohibition goes back to 1937, when a law made possession illegal, unless someone paid a tax for federal permits that were unavailable.

States take lead

But Blumenauer said that after the Nov. 3 election — when voters in five states approved medical or adult use — virtually every state now allows some form of public access to cannabis.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states allow full medical-marijuana programs and 11 more allow limited therapeutic use of cannabidiol, a chemical in cannabis that does not induce intoxication. Only Idaho, Kansas and Nebraska do not allow any form of public access.

The number of states legalizing adult recreational use is up to 15, including Arizona, where voters approved it Nov. 3 by more than 650,000 votes — 60 times greater than Joe Biden's winning presidential bid for the state's 11 electoral votes.

"It's likely that Joe Biden would not have won Arizona if it did not have marijuana on the ballot," Blumenauer said. "It brought young, Brown and Black people to the polls."

Among the Democratic candidates, Biden did not fully embrace legalization. But he has supported some elements, such as allowing medical use, letting states chart their own course — in contrast to President Donald Trump, whose first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, gave leeway to federal prosecutors to go after states — and rescheduling the drug.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, the newly elected vice president under Biden, also has changed her stance from opposition when she was a district attorney and state attorney general. Harris is from Oakland, which is in Lee's congressional district.

Blumenauer was a 24-year-old state representative in 1973, when Oregon became the first state to make possession of one ounce or less punishable as an infraction — comparable to a traffic offense — and a maximum fine of $100. Oregon voters approved a medical-use law in 1998 and full legalization in 2014, although other states preceded it.

Obstacles remain

Blumenauer and Lee acknowledged there are still political obstacles.

Only five Republicans joined Democrats to vote for the House bill. Oregon's five representatives also split along party lines, 4-1. The Republican majority in the Senate has failed to advance another House-passed bill (HR 1595) to allow marijuana-related businesses to use the banking system for financial transactions without violating federal law.

"The people's House has done its job," Lee said. "We can't wait for the Senate."

Blumenauer said if Republicans politicize the issue, they are on the wrong side.

He said: "I think they are walking into a political landmine if they ridicule sincere efforts to end the failed war on drugs and facilitate attempts for this new industry and seek racial justice that has been long denied. I think we are moving toward a reckoning."

Blumenauer said the bill has been endorsed by Jon Ossoff, one of two Georgia Democrats in a pair of Jan. 5 runoff elections that will determine which party controls the Senate.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, also the top Democrat on the tax-writing Finance Committee, worked with Blumenauer to develop the banking provisions of the bill. Blumenauer sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, that chamber's tax-writing committee.

Wyden said in a statement after the vote:

"Today common sense and justice prevailed, and the federal government is closer than ever to closing the chapter on failed cannabis prohibition — a prohibition that has needlessly destroyed lives, stifled research and treated job-generating legal small businesses like criminal organizations. This moment has been culminating since Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis in the 1970s, and I want to commend my good friend and fellow Oregonian Rep. Earl Blumenauer for his steadfast dedication to bring our cannabis policies out of yesteryear.

"We are on the brink of history, with a vast majority of Americans behind our efforts. Now, we need to get Mitch McConnell to heed their call to legalize cannabis. Today we celebrate victory in the House, and then get right back to the fight for justice in the Senate."


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NOTE: Corrects the bill number for the MORE Act.

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