The US House of Representatives has passed a bill to decriminalise cannabis at the federal level for the first time.
It calls for removing cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances and erasing certain federal convictions.
It also supports reinvestment in communities adversely impacted by the decades-long “war on drugs”.
The bill is very unlikely to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (More) Act was passed in the lower chamber 228 to 164 on Friday afternoon, with just five Republicans – and one independent – supporting the measure.
Many Republican lawmakers said the bill’s implications are potentially harmful to American youth and called it a “waste of time”, complaining that they should have focused on Covid relief instead.
Cannabis reform advocates hailed the vote as “historic” and “long overdue”, but still needs to pass the Senate and be signed into law by the president. If that happens, it could help bridge a major disconnect between federal and state drug policy in the US.
Cannabis is still prohibited by the federal Controlled Substances Act and classed as a Schedule I narcotic – defined as having no medical value and a high potential for abuse – but one in three Americans currently live in states where cannabis is legal for adult use.
In addition, 38 states have passed measures that allow its use for medicinal purposes.
Last month, voters in three states – Arizona, Montana and New Jersey – overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to legalise recreational use, with voters in Mississippi supporting its medicinal use. South Dakota, a traditionally conservative state, made history when voters there simultaneously backed initiatives for the medicinal and recreational use of the drug.
Support for federal cannabis legalisation is now at an all-time high, with a Gallup poll last month showing more than two-thirds of American adults support it.
Several lawmakers took to the House floor ahead of the vote, arguing the bill had less to do with legalising marijuana and more to do with how the enforcement of cannabis prohibition has hurt communities of colour, leaving behind “a legacy of racial and ethnic injustices”.
Black Americans are more than three times as likely to be arrested for cannabis-related offenses as white Americans, despite similar rates of usage, according to a study last year from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We’re not rushing to legalise marijuana. The American people have already done that,” said Democrat Earl Blumenauer, from Oregon, who is the founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and an original sponsor of the bill.
“We’re here because Congress has failed to deal with the disastrous war on drugs and do its part for the over 50 million regular marijuana users in every one of your districts.”
The bill was drafted in coordination with several cannabis justice advocates.
It includes measures to expunge the federal criminal records of those charged or convicted for non-violent cannabis offenses and provide cannabis business owners easier access to grants or loans. It would also tax cannabis retail sales and create a trust fund to reinvest in job training and other initiatives for communities of colour harmed by the drug war.
Incoming president Joe Biden and Democratic leadership have expressed a desire to end federal prohibition through decriminalisation, but neither Senate Republican leadership nor current President Donald Trump have indicated support for the legislation to become law.
In a preview of the bill’s unclear future, Greg Murphy, from North Carolina, said the drug was “one of the most abused substances on the planet”.
Adding a rare Republican voice of support, Matt Gaetz, from Florida, said: “The federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana for a generation… If we were measuring the success of the war on drugs, drugs have won.”