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House committee advances bill to legalize marijuana

Outlook for final passage is still uncertain

Marijuana activists hold up a 51-foot inflatable joint during an October 2019 rally outside the Capitol.
Marijuana activists hold up a 51-foot inflatable joint during an October 2019 rally outside the Capitol. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday to decriminalize and deschedule marijuana, finishing a two-day markup in which the panel also approved a series of bipartisan measures designed to lower drug prices. 

Republicans Matt Gaetz of Florida and Tom McClintock of California joined Democrats to advance the marijuana bill by a vote of 26-15.

The measure, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., passed the chamber last year but stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer proposed a similar measure in July, sparking hopes among advocates that the legislation would finally make it into law. 

The bill would decriminalize and deschedule cannabis, and implement a federal tax on marijuana products to fund grants for communities hardest hit by the nation’s war on drugs. The bill would also allow most individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses to expunge their records, with the exception of those considered to be “kingpins,” or those who helped oversee a criminal drug ring.

The outlook for final passage is still uncertain. Schumer and co-sponsors, including Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., have not yet formally introduced their draft bill, and Congress is currently consumed by a debate to pass trillions of dollars in spending on infrastructure and social programs.

It’s also unclear whether President Joe Biden will sign the bill. While Biden has endorsed decriminalizing the drug, he has not backed full legalization.

Democrats and Republicans sparred over the sweeping scope of the bill and the racial implications of the war on drugs, with most Republicans opposing legalization and accusing Democrats of hobbling law enforcement.

House Judiciary ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, argued the bill would create a “stimulus” for the marijuana industry without safeguards related to usage and potency. But Nadler countered that the federal government doesn’t jail individuals who use nicotine, which also has serious health risks.

“We don’t put nicotine users in jail, we discourage their use,” he said. “And that’s essentially the same approach we’ll take here.”

The debate devolved into a series of fights over the border, law enforcement, abortion and COVID-19 vaccines. One spat between Utah Republican Burgess Owens and Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee centered on what role government assistance should play in Black communities.

“Government can’t answer everything but we can be a partner, and the positive elements of this legislation says let’s be a partner in social justice or moving away from the inequities in communities,” Jackson Lee said. “Let’s stop the incarceration and put them in job training or rehabilitation.”

The panel rejected six amendments from Republicans, including an amendment from Wisconsin’s Tom Tiffany that would have blocked grant funding for individuals convicted of rioting or looting. The amendment was rejected, 15-19. Similar amendments to block grants to individuals convicted of gun charges and those who evade taxes fell short, 15-20 and 16-20, respectively.

Another amendment from Thomas Massie, R-Ky., that would have removed the tax and grant provisions was ruled out of order. Republicans questioned the decision, noting that the amendment simply struck certain portions of the language, but did not formally challenge the ruling.

An amendment from Dan Bishop, R-N.C., would have required the Department of Transportation to develop and publish best practices on testing for impaired drivers before the bill takes effect, but was also ruled out of order over the lack of committee jurisdiction.

Drug pricing bills

The committee also approved by voice vote the final drug pricing bill in a group of four that lawmakers began considering Wednesday. The measure would limit the number of patents a brand-name biologic-maker could claim in a lawsuit against biosimilar competitors. 

The measure was co-sponsored by Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and former tech entrepreneur Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who advocated the bill’s approval based on his personal experience with patent litigation.

“I know how powerful a large portfolio of nondescript patents can be,” Issa said. “I know that if you throw the entire telephone book of patents from a large portfolio at somebody, it is not only intimidating but incredibly expensive to figure out all the places one might infringe, and to be sure that you are 100 percent innocent.”

All four drug-pricing bills the committee approved reflect long-standing bipartisan legislation that most recently were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. But House Republicans expressed more opposition to the legislation than their Senate counterparts, who joined with Democrats in advancing the measures by voice vote.

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