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US House votes to decriminalize marijuana

December 4, 2020

Voting 228 to 164, the US House of Representatives has backed a motion to decriminalize marijuana on the federal level. The Democrat-led move is unlikely to get backing in the currently Republican-controlled Senate.

A man and a woman tend cannabis plants at an organic marijuana farm in Pueblo, Colorado
Image: Nature Picture Library/imago images

Nearly all center-left Democrats in lower US chamber, joined by a handful of libertarian Republicans, voted Friday to decriminalize marijuana, a move that could nudge President-elect Joe Biden to follow suit from late January. 

The bill would also see the records of many people detained on federal marijuana charges expunged and would also establish regulation and taxation of the industry, as with alcohol or tobacco.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a senator until next month, had campaigned to "remove the burden of marijuana convictions" blamed for excessive jailing of peoples of color by the hundreds of thousands. 

Republicans said the move was a hollow gesture amid the coronavirus pandemic. House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused Democrats of putting "cannabis on the House floor" instead of focusing on COVID-19. 

Expunging marijuana from federal act

The bill would remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act, where it is listed alongside heroin and cocaine with tough penalties.

In recent decades, many US states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and some, like Colorado, have freed it for recreational consumption. 

Canada, the neighbor to the north, legalized marijuana in 2018. And, last month, Mexico took a first step toward undermining local gangs that supply the United States.

Decriminalization advocates have argued that cannabis causes relatively low harm and that legalization would dissuade violent growers and traffickers. 

"Radish farmers don't kill each other over territory," said Tom McLintock, a California Republican who favored the bill.

Canada's cannabis boom closely watched

"This is a historic moment," said Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard, while the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler said prosecution and incarceration at federal level had proven "unwise and unjust."

On Wednesday in Vienna, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted narrowly to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from its so-called 1961 Schedule VI, following a 2019 recommendation from the World Health Organization.

The WHO maintained, however, that other narcotics listed, including heroin, fentanyl analogs and other opioids, were dangerous and often deadly.

ipj/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)