Legislation approved by the U.S. House to decriminalize possession of marijuana at a federal level is facing pushback from Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.
The bill was approved by House members on April 1 by a vote of 220–204, with three Republicans—Reps. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Brian Mast (R-Mich.), and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.)—joining Democrats to pass the bill. Two Democrats voted no: Chris Pappas of New Hampshire and Henry Cuellar of Texas.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), would, among other measures, remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances, establish a process to expunge convictions for federal cannabis offenses, allow those who have used marijuana to gain security clearance, permit the Veterans Administration to prescribe cannabis for medical and mental health reasons, and would allow the federal government to place a sales tax on sales of marijuana.
Democrats marketed the bill as a panacea for those whose records are blemished by marijuana possession, and avoided the fraught social and moral questions of drug use altogether.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-N.Y.) said that criminal records for marijuana possession “can haunt people of color and impact the trajectory of their lives and career indefinitely.”
However, despite its relatively painless passage through the House, the bill faces much steeper hurdles in the Senate.
Under Senate rules, most legislation must receive the support of 60 senators to end debate on a bill before that bill can go to the floor for a final simple majority vote. And that 60-vote threshold is shaping up to be a difficult one to overcome as members of both parties in the evenly divided Senate express opposition to the bill.
One important swing voter, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), has already suggested that he’s skeptical of the legislation.
Manchin told another news outlet that although he supports relaxing restrictions on marijuana for medical use, he remains skeptical of permitting its recreational use at a federal level.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) joined Manchin in skepticism toward the bill, citing the substance abuse crisis that has only escalated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have concerns about recreational marijuana … given the substance abuse crisis we have in this country, and we have an issue in New Hampshire and the lack of comprehensive data on how people are affected,” she said.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) also cited the burgeoning substance abuse crisis as grounds for opposing the bill, saying that it would exacerbate “serious drug problems in Montana.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) refrained from giving reasons that he would oppose the bill, instead saying simply, “I would not think it would pass the Senate right now.”
Still, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and a few other Democratic lawmakers have continued to push for the bill.
“We hope to do that towards the end of April,” Schumer said last week. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have joined Schumer in the push.
In an interview with The Epoch Times, Scott Chipman, representing the anti-marijuana advocacy group Americans Against Legalizing Marijuana, agreed with some lawmakers’ concerns that legalizing the drug could further increase substance abuse problems in the United States.
“Marijuana use primes the brain for opioid addiction,” Chipman said, when asked whether legalizing marijuana could expand the opioid epidemic ravaging U.S. towns and cities. “If you’re a user of marijuana and then you try an opiate, your chances of addiction to the opioid dramatically go up.”
Chipman also noted how marijuana can be a “pathway” to harder drug use.
“If you’re in addiction therapy, if you’re in basically a treatment center for addiction to whatever drugs—meth, heroin, crack, opioids—the number one drug that you started with was marijuana,” he said. “Marijuana is the beginning of the path, the trailhead, to addiction to all kinds of drugs.”
Though proponents of marijuana have long ridiculed the argument that marijuana is a “gateway drug,” some research indicates the claim is true. In one national study conducted in 2014, researchers determined that, “A large proportion of individuals who use cannabis go on to use other illegal drugs.”
If the bill—which has failed to pass the Senate on several occasions in previous Congresses—were to be approved, “the messaging would continue to expand in the wrong direction,” Chipman says. “The message that is being sent is that it’s no worse than alcohol or it’s not a serious drug, it should just be normalized, and more and more people will be using it.”
In an email to The Epoch Times, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which advocates for the legalization of marijuana, said that the bill falls in line with the opinions of most Americans.
Some polls do suggest that a majority of Americans want the drug to be legalized for both medical and recreational use. In a Pew Research poll conducted in April 2021, 91 percent of respondents said they supported the legalization of marijuana for medical use. Sixty percent said they supported legalizing the drug for both medical and recreational use.
“The biggest benefits of passage would be to address what a vast majority of Americans now support, both Republicans and Democrats, and that is an end to the criminalization and prohibition of cannabis,” a spokesman for MPP said.
Still, MPP conceded that the bill is unlikely to pass.
“Even the sponsors indicated they might have a difficult time getting the 60 votes needed this year for passage,” the organization said. “Given the dynamics around a midterm election cycle, it might be too much to expect this year.”