House vote on marijuana legalization bill postponed after backlash from moderate lawmakers

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WASHINGTON – Democrats in the House of Representatives postponed a planned vote next week on marijuana legalization following a backlash from moderate Democrats.

The legislation, the MORE Act, would legalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge some marijuana-related criminal records, though it left the decision on the sale of marijuana up to the states.

According to a senior Democratic aide, lawmakers in tough re-election contests wanted the House to first pass COVID-19 relief before acting on marijuana legalization.

Another senior Democratic aide said a group of moderate Democrats had made the case to party leadership that they wanted to focus on legislation other than pot legalization given the risks posed at the ballot box – and their argument won over party leaders. 

The MORE Act would probably not come up until after the election, according to twoaides.  

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement the House would pass the MORE Act “later this autumn,” but right now, “the House is focused relentlessly on securing agreement to stave off a damaging government shutdown and continuing to do its job addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Congress has a just few weeks left in its scheduled session to pass COVID-19 legislation and bills to keep the government funded. The House is scheduled to stay in session until Oct. 2, though Pelosi promised the body would remain in session until a deal is brokered on COVID-19 relief. The Senate is scheduled to stay until Oct. 9. After they leave, the two chambers are not scheduled to return until after Election Day.

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Pelosi and the Trump administration came to an informal deal earlier this month that would extend government funding at the current operating levels. It’s still unclear how long the bills will extend to, and whether there will be any other legislation attached to the funding bills. Leaders on both sides of the aisle have said they do not want to add COVID-19 relief funding to the spending bills.

The government will shut down on Sept. 30 unless Congress passes a continuing resolution and the president signs off. Hoyer, D-Md., announced Thursday the House would consider stopgap government funding legislation next week.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told reporters Thursday talks over government funding were “going quite well.”

“I don’t think anybody wants to be responsible for shutting down the government on the eve of an election in the middle of a pandemic, so it’s a rare outbreak of common sense on both sides,” he said, though he acknowledged there was still disagreement over extending government funding through December, or until February or March, when a new Congress would be sworn in.

Cole said the spending bill could be a “vehicle” for other legislation like COVID-19 relief if all sides came to an agreement.

Advocates were disappointed by the delay of the marijuana legislation.

Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance,  a group advocating for the decriminalization of drugs, said in a statement the delay meant “justice delayed for millions of Black, Latinx, Indigenous and low-income individuals disproportionately impacted by our country’s racist marijuana laws. We cannot continue to force these communities to wait for a ‘politically convenient’ moment while they continue to be robbed of employment opportunities, housing, education, other government programs, and even their children or immigration status.”

An ACLU report analyzing marijuana-related arrests from 2010 to 2018 found that Black people were 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. 

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