For the first time ever, a House committee last week approved a measure to federally decriminalize marijuana. The current bill has an uncertain future, but it’s the first official acknowledgement that many in Congress finally understand that the current situation — with state after state legalizing what remains illegal under federal law — can’t continue.
Objectively, the federal designation of pot as a Schedule 1 drug, equating it with heroin for abuse potential, has never made much sense. Cannabis is demonstrably less dangerous than the legalized vices of cigarettes and alcohol — and, unlike either, has some confirmed medical value. Yet marijuana has long been lumped in federal law (and, until recently, in mainstream societal thinking) alongside some of the most deadly illicit drugs out there. This inconsistency has been driven in large part by prejudices against a substance historically associated with minorities, youth and counterculture.
Individual states have been coming around on that issue in recent years: More than 30 states, including Missouri, have legalized marijuana for medical use; 11, including Illinois, have legalized recreational marijuana. Those kinds of numbers are a clear indication that mainstream America is starting to see through the haze of hysteria that has long surrounded pot.
But Congress has lagged in that evolution, repeatedly failing to acknowledge that pot has no business being included on the federal Schedule 1 list of illicit drugs that the government considers to have no medical value and high risk of abuse. This is like including slingshots in an assault-weapons ban.
The disconnect between the states taking a more relaxed approach to marijuana, and the federal government refusing to, has already led to some logically strained situations. For example, the House previously passed a bill to allow banks to do business with cannabis companies where marijuana is legal. Once you feel compelled to start passing laws giving industries permission to engage in federally illegal activities, it’s time to reconsider that underlying illegality.
The House Judiciary Committee did just that last week, passing a bill that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, formally giving states full control over pot laws. The bipartisan measure — which had more than 50 co-sponsors and won committee passage on a 24-10 vote — would also expunge federal marijuana convictions and authorize a 5% federal sales tax on marijuana products.
Among the “yes” votes were two Republicans, including outspoken conservative Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who has vowed to lobby a reluctant Trump administration on the issue.
The measure may not pass the full House and is likely dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate. The committee approval is nonetheless a significant nod toward congressional reasonableness on cannabis. As the states have already figured out, it’s time.