US House passes landmark federal marijuana legalization bill – again

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(This story was updated at 1:50 p.m. ET with reactions to Friday’s vote.)

The U.S. House of Representatives, for the second time in its history, passed a sweeping bill Friday that would end the federal government’s prohibition on marijuana, but the Senate looms as a big hurdle to passage of the legalization measure.

The lower chamber voted 220-204 to pass the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would remove the plant from the federal Controlled Substances Act and open the industry to additional multibillion-dollar business opportunities and access to traditional banking services.

The MORE Act would not only decriminalize marijuana but also reinvest in communities harmed by the war on drugs and provide for expungement of certain cannabis convictions.

The vote was along party lines, with only three Republicans supporting the measure.

“With voter support for legal cannabis at an all-time high and more and more states moving away from prohibition, we commend the House for once again taking this step to modernize our federal marijuana policies,” Aaron Smith, CEO of the Washington DC-based National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a statement.

“Now is the time for the Senate to act on sensible reform legislation so that we can finally end the failure of prohibition and foster a well-regulated marketplace for cannabis.”

Debate lasted an hour

In an hourlong debate, supporters said ending the federal prohibition on marijuana is long overdue and that the ban has been a stain on democracy, leading to massive incarceration rates that disproportionately affect communities of color.

Opponents sharply criticized Democrats for prioritizing marijuana at a time of rising gas and food prices and the war in Ukraine. They also claimed the plant harms youth and adult mental health and fuels drug cartels.

House passage is largely symbolic unless the Senate follows suit.

Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has been promising since last year to introduce a comprehensive marijuana legalization measure called the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act.

It is expected to be offered later this month.

The vote Friday came with higher stakes for members because their positions on marijuana legalization could become an issue during upcoming primaries and the fall election.

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The previous U.S. House passed the social justice-focused MORE Act by a margin of 228-164 in December 2020 during the Congress’ lame-duck session, with a handful of Republicans then supporting the bill.

Action on the legislation had to start over after the new Congress was seated in January 2021.

MORE Act details

In addition to legalizing marijuana federally, the MORE Act would:

  • Enable states to continue to regulate marijuana as they see fit.
  • Allow financial institutions to provide traditional banking services such as deposit accounts, credit cards and loans to marijuana companies without fear of federal reprisal.
  • End the federal 280E tax restrictions that prevent state-legal marijuana businesses from taking deductions that are available to ordinary businesses.
  • Pave the way for interstate and international marijuana trade.
  • Initially impose a 5% federal retail sales tax on marijuana products, with the tax rate increasing gradually to 8% by Year Five. Tax revenues would go into an Opportunity Trust Fund to support individuals and businesses in communities most harmed by the war on drugs.

The measure is designed in part to support industry diversity.

Many lawmakers have expressed concerns that the state-legal marijuana industry increasingly is being controlled by large multistate operators headed mostly by white males.

For his part, President Joe Biden has frustrated the marijuana industry by his lack of support on legalization, with his administration yet to move forward substantively on election campaign pledges, which included rescheduling the plant.

“Taken together (MORE and Schumer’s bill), Congress is strongly signaling that the end of federal cannabis prohibition is nearing,” Steven Hawkins, CEO of the US Cannabis Council, a leading industry organization, said in a statement.

“There is much more work to be done before any bill reaches the President’s desk, but we are approaching the end of the cannabis prohibition era.

“As more states launch medical and adult-use cannabis programs, as the majority of Americans who support reform continues to grow, and as more Americans have jobs in an industry that already employs over 400,000 people, the pressure will build on Congress to act.”

Jeff Smith can be reached at