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US: House Votes to End Marijuana Prohibition

Senate Should Pass Landmark Legislation to Advance Racial Justice, Equity

Supporters hold flags near the Capitol in Washington, DC, during a rally in favor of marijuana legalization on April 24, 2017. © AP Photo/Alex Brandon

(Washington, DC) – The passage of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act) in the House of Representatives on December 4, 2020, is a landmark step toward a rights-respecting criminal legal system in the United States, while furthering racial justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The Senate should move swiftly to follow suit, and President-elect Joe Biden should commit to signing the bill into law.

“Passage of the MORE Act in the House charts a path to repair and redress for the devastating toll wrought by marijuana prohibition on countless families in the US, disproportionately affecting Black and brown communities,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “The incoming Biden administration should work for the bill’s passage in the Senate and, once in office, pursue a broader overhaul of the failed ‘war on drugs.’”

The passage of the MORE Act represents the first time that a congressional chamber has voted to end the federal prohibition of marijuana. While it is unlikely to pass in the Senate and be signed into law by President Donald Trump during the remainder of this congressional session, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have pledged that the Biden administration will decriminalize marijuana. As a senator, Harris introduced the MORE Act in the Senate.

The MORE Act removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and begins to repair the harm marijuana prohibition has caused to millions of people, particularly people of color, by establishing a fund for social equity programs to reinvest in affected communities. It also creates a process by which people with federal marijuana convictions can have their records for these convictions expunged, in some cases automatically, or can be resentenced.

The bill follows the passage of several important state drug reform measures during the November 3 elections. In Oregon, with ballot measure 110, voters made Oregon the first US state to decriminalize the simple possession of all drugs for personal use. The ballot measure also funds voluntary treatment and other support for people who struggle with problematic drug use.

Voters in Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota passed ballot initiatives that legalize marijuana for adult or medical use, which brings the total number of states legalizing adult-use marijuana to 15 and medical marijuana to 36. Taken together, the passage of the MORE Act along with these state initiatives represents a growing shift in drug policy in the United States away from criminalization and prohibition toward community reinvestment and public health.

As the bill underwent review by congressional committees, lawmakers included amendments that restricted eligibility for record expungement for people with certain types of federal marijuana offenses, and which may leave some people with previous cannabis felonies ineligible to participate in the industry. As the bill moves to the Senate, Congress should remove these recent amendments and ensure that the bill focuses on repairing to the greatest extent possible the harm of marijuana prohibition, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has long documented the devastating toll of criminalizing drug use and possession, and advocated that states and the federal government should move away from punitive approaches and focus instead on harm reduction and health-based approaches to substance use. In 2016, research by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) showed that in the US, someone was arrested for drug possession for personal use every 25 seconds. Even though rate of drug use by Black people and white people is similar, Black people were more than 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for simple possession.

Drug possession for personal use remains by far the offense for which people are arrested the most in the United States, with 1.35 million people arrested for drug possession in the United States in 2019. The racial disparities in these arrests remain acute.

The largest share of drug possession arrests is marijuana-related. An April ACLU report found that in 2018, Black people were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.

In the immigration system, a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, “A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses,” documented the ways in which marijuana criminalization has traumatized and separated families. From 2007 to 2012, for example, marijuana possession was one of the top causes of deportation. Due to federal prohibition, a conviction for simple possession of marijuana can trigger mandatory detention provisions – people who would never face jail time under criminal laws faced months or even years of detention under immigration laws.

Human Rights Watch is one of the founding members of the Marijuana Justice Coalition (MJC), a group of civil and human rights organizations that advocates for marijuana reform at the federal level. The MJC is committed to the goal of passing federal marijuana reform that acknowledges the disproportionate harm faced by low-income, Black, and Latinx communities, and works toward repairing that harm. The MJC supported the introduction of the MORE Act in July 2019, passage by the US House Judiciary Committee in November 2019, and passage on the House floor on December 4, 2020.

“Marijuana prohibition has deeply racist roots,” Austin-Hillery said. “The ball is now in the courts of the Senate and the incoming Biden administration to further racial justice by swiftly ending marijuana prohibition and repairing the harm it has caused.”


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