The US House of Representatives on Friday passed a sweeping reform bill that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge many non-violent criminal records.
Advocates say it is a key step towards ending failed drug policies, which increasingly are seen as having disproportionately negatively affected minority groups and lower income earners.
The bill, which includes a proposed tax to help community programmes, was proposed by the Democrats and nearly all lawmakers in the centre-left party voted in favour. They were joined by a handful of libertarian-leaning Republicans, with a final vote of 228-164.
The bill will likely stall in the Republican-controlled Senate, but the passage of a comprehensive plan in the lower chamber could push President-elect Joe Biden to take executive action on cannabis after he takes office in January.
“For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health,” said Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the bill’s sponsor.
He slammed “the failed policy of criminalizing marijuana.”
Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect and a senator until next month, is the key sponsor of the parallel bill in the Senate to legalize marijuana.
Harris said that Congress “must act to remove the burden of marijuana convictions,” adding that the criminal records act is a roadblock to job and housing opportunities.
Biden was once a tough-on-crime senator, but in his campaign for president staked out some more moderate positions.
The move mirrors that of many Democrats who have shifted from supporting the so-called war on drugs to new policies that are increasingly being coupled with wider policing and judicial reforms.
Cannabis is now legal in a number of US states, whether for medical or recreational use. The November election saw a number of pro-cannabis ballot measures pass in both Republican and Democratic states. More states are planning action in 2021.