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THIS WEEK IN WEED

The US House just voted to decriminalize marijuana — but timid Democrats don’t deserve an ovation

MORE Act vote is belated, and the bill is going nowhere

This image from House Television shows the final vote, 228-164, in the House on passage of a bill to decriminalize and tax marijuana at the federal level. The bill now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it is unlikely to move forward.
This image from House Television shows the final vote, 228-164, in the House on passage of a bill to decriminalize and tax marijuana at the federal level. The bill now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it is unlikely to move forward.Associated Press

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The Democrat-led US House made history Friday when members voted 228-164 in favor of decriminalizing and taxing marijuana at the federal level, while wiping away old convictions and investing the spoils in communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.

There was, predictably, much rejoicing by the cannabis industry and marijuana advocates. And it wasn’t entirely undeserved.

Let’s not give the Blue Team too much credit, though.

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First of all, House leaders had originally planned to yea-or-nay the measure, called the MORE Act, back in September. But a handful of centrists up for re-election in purple districts complained the bill made them vulnerable to attacks by their Republican proponents in the critical weeks leading up the November election. Leadership obligingly pulled the plug, long after the date of the vote had been announced.

Then November came around and — whoops! Voters all over the United States easily approved marijuana legalization ballot measures, including those in blood-red Montana and South Dakota, purple Arizona, and deep-blue New Jersey. Oklahoma, another red state, apparently now has “the hottest weed market in the nation,” and voters in progressive areas such as Oregon are moving on and decriminalizing other drugs, a push that will soon come to Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the most recent polls show support for legalization nearing 70 percent among Americans, with more than 90 percent (yes, really) backing legal medical marijuana and fewer than 10 percent saying the drug should remain completely illegal.

So while I’m not rooting for any particular policy here, I am wondering why political consultants on both sides of the aisle aren’t grabbing their clients by the collar and shouting, “what are you waiting for?! The drug war is over! Drugs won! Scoreboard, bro!”

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In other words, it’s hard to make much sense of the reluctance of many elected officials — Democrats and Republicans at the local, state, and federal levels alike — to embrace marijuana legalization in the face of objective evidence that voters of all stripes are for-real into it. Sure, we have the benefit of hindsight, with November’s votes behind us. But those results at the ballot box only proved what the polls and earlier votes have showed for years.

We’re left only with the weird truth that many Democrats simply weren’t willing to go to bat for their own party’s deeply popular policy proposal until the election was safely over. A profile in courage this is not.

One can only surmise that the stigma around cannabis remains a hell of a drug, and that courage and eyeglasses (handy for reading polls and election results) are in short supply on Capitol Hill.

Now add the party’s long history of supporting marijuana prohibition — President-elect Joe Biden spent much of the 1980s and 90s literally pounding the podium to demand harsher drug sentences and more jails — and you’ll understand why many legalization proponents aren’t exactly leaping out of their seats to applaud the Democrats.

Another reason to not get too excited: The social justice-minded MORE Act is going precisely nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, which hasn’t even touched a far more modest marijuana banking bill the House passed a while ago.

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Any serious talk of federal marijuana policy reform must wait for January, when we’ll learn whether the Democrats can pull off an upset in Georgia and take the Senate. Even if they do, don’t forget that president-elect Biden ran on a platform of “decriminalize, don’t legalize.” It’s an open question whether the onetime drug warrior would sign more progressive legislation fully legalizing the drug, assuming Congress could manage to get such a bill to his desk.

A Republican-controlled Senate, meanwhile, seems unlikely to compromise on marijuana. Yes, a few GOP Senators are game, which could make things interesting and is the subject of much wishful thinking by proponents. But for now, there are no signs the party is tip-toeing in that direction. On the contrary, Republicans wasted no time Friday attacking their rivals for, in their view, focusing on frivolous legislation while the coronavirus pandemic rages on. (Democrats counter they’ve passed a comprehensive coronavirus bill that the Senate is sitting on.)

One final buzzkill: The language passed Friday will almost certainly never be enshrined in federal law. That’s because, as noted above, the real politicking will begin once Biden takes office and Senate is settled. It’s also because this version of the MORE Act is drawing unexpected friendly-fire.

Advocates and state marijuana regulators who had previously endorsed the measure started withdrawing their support late Friday after noticing last-minute amendments had added a requirement for a federal license and a bar on people with past marijuana felonies working in the legal pot industry. Such a law at the federal level would upend state- and local-level policies in Massachusetts and elsewhere that prioritize the licensure of those harmed by prohibition.

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Progressives are ascendant in the marijuana movement, which a decade ago had a more libertarian flavor. While the presence of industry lobbyists representing state-legal pot businesses considerably complicates the pro-cannabis political landscape in D.C., there will nonetheless be strong pressure from activists and progressive representatives to revisit provisions that in essence continue to punish people for marijuana even after the drug is legalized.

None of this is to say Friday’s vote didn’t matter. It’s a huge shift for a branch of Congress to repudiate a commitment to federal marijuana prohibition that began with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and went into overdrive with the 1970 passage of the Controlled Substances Act.

The act placed marijuana in the most-restricted category of drug, Schedule I, alongside heroin and above cocaine — an objective absurdity that practically no one defends these days. In turn, the classification unleashed waves of expensive anti-drug operations by law enforcement that yielded many arrests and seizures, but mostly failed to suppress illicit markets or make a dent in rates of drug consumption.

So even though the MORE Act is dead on arrival, representatives with their votes on Friday finally acknowledged after 50 years of bad outcomes that, hey, maybe the guns-blazing approach isn’t working out so great. They offered the country a vision of what truly just drug laws could look like.

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That’s a conversation worth having. But for now, I’ll keep my confetti in my pocket, thanks.


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.