By JOHN PARKINSON, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) -- For the first time in congressional history, House Democrats are poised for a vote Friday on a long-shot measure that would decriminalize marijuana use at the federal level -- months after pulling the bill amid worries the controversial vote could cause some lawmakers to lose tight races in November.
The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act would also mandate a reassessment of prior marijuana convictions, invest in services for people caught up in the war on drugs and open Small Business Administration funding for legitimate cannabis-related businesses.
Despite widespread support from Democrats in the House of Representatives, the bill stands almost no chance of becoming law in the current session of Congress due to a Republican firewall in the Senate and President Donald Trump still occupying the White House. Biden campaigned in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.
But even after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January, Democrats would have to pass the measure not just through the House again but also clear it through the Senate. The upper chamber’s majority control is still up for grabs -- with two runoff elections in Georgia are scheduled early next month -- but the legislation would be subject to a 60-vote threshold to advance through the Senate and on to the Resolute Desk.
Although the measure has collected dust since passing through the House Judiciary Committee last November, the timing of the planned floor vote more than a year later allows many Democrats to celebrate a promise to pass the bill before the end of the current session of Congress.
Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, one of the bill’s original sponsors, presided over the House debate on the measure Thursday wearing a face mask featuring cannabis leaves.
Across the aisle, Republicans continued to criticize Democratic priorities in the midst of a pandemic when floor time is limited and considered precious to lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Democrats want to focus on cannabis and cats, not COVID relief,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters at a news conference in the Capitol on Thursday. “You’d think after a humiliating defeat at the ballot box this year, where Democrats didn't defeat one Republican incumbent, that Democrats would get the picture that Americans are demanding action on issues that matter to them.”
While the prolonged stalemate over the next phase of COVID-19 relief persists, lawmakers still haven't come together on other must-pass legislation on the agenda that will require bipartisan cooperation, including an agreement to fund the government. Congress has just five legislative days remaining on the schedule before a potential government shutdown on Dec. 11.
Still, Rep. Jim McGovern, chair of the House Rules Committee, called on lawmakers “to take a stand” for “restorative justice, to stand for racial justice, to stand for criminal justice reform, and to stand with the majority of Americans demanding reforms to our nation’s cannabis policy.”
“Some, particularly on the other side, have wondered why we are moving forward with these reforms now. We must soon fund the government for the next fiscal year and pass the annual defense bill,” McGovern, D-Mass., said during debate on the bill Thursday. “We have a lot to do in the waning days of this Congress. I get that. But the answer is simple: This is not an either-or proposition. Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
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