WASHINGTON — Friday on Capitol Hill was more 4/20 than April Fools' Day as Democrats in Congress once again cleared a significant hurdle in their fight to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level in the United States.
By a margin of 220-204, the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would effectively remove cannabis from the U.S. list of controlled substances.
Two Democrats broke ranks by voting against the legislation, while a pair of Republicans defied their own party line and voted to support it.
It's the second time the House has passed the bill, known as the MORE Act, which now heads to the Senate, where it faces a decidedly less certain future among evenly split Democrats and Republicans.
It will also face competition: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the most powerful Democrat in the upper chamber, is expected to introduce a similar bill right around April 20, a holiday of sorts on the cannabis calendar.
"For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House justice committee, who sponsored the bill.
"Whatever one's views are on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, the policy of arrest, prosecution and incarceration at the federal level has proven both unwise and unjust."
Republicans in the House slammed the measure as a glaring example of misplaced Democratic priorities, pointing to everything from gas prices and the war in Ukraine to the "crisis" at the U.S.-Mexico border as examples of issues that are more important than legalized pot.
"You know why they're dealing with this today? Because they can't deal with the real problems facing the American people," railed Rep. Jim Jordan, the Republican attack dog from Ohio.
"This is wrong and everybody knows it.... Let's focus on the things that matter."
But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, whose 40-year career representing Maryland in D.C. began just as Ronald Reagan was resurrecting Richard Nixon's war on drugs, was having none of it.
"When I hear this argument, 'Oh, we ought to be doing this, we ought to be doing that, we ought to be doing the other' — this is an important, fair piece of legislation for the American people," he said.
"I was a supporter of the war on drugs. I've been here a long time.... It's not a gateway drug. I've been convinced of that."
Friday's debate and vote was closely watched by industry players in Canada, where cannabis has been legal since 2018 and producers and retailers alike are poised for the chance to both expand into the U.S. and defend their market share at home.
Most agree that while legalization south of the border may not be imminent, it's likely more a matter of when, not if.
"I do think it's going to happen," said Omar Khan, vice-president of corporate and public affairs for High Tide Inc., a Calgary-based cannabis retailer with operations in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
"We take a cautiously optimistic approach. I think we understand that getting comprehensive decriminalization or legalization through the Senate right now is not a sure thing. Let's just put it that way."
There are also concerns about the level of support at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Even though President Joe Biden was adamant during the 2020 election campaign about the need to reform marijuana laws, the silence from the White House since he took office has been deafening, said David Culver, vice-president of global government relations for Canopy Growth Corp., based in Smiths Falls, Ont.
"Not only is this inaction out of touch with his own party and the American public who overwhelmingly support reform efforts, but this inaction has consequences," Culver said in a statement.
"Unkept campaign promises are ignoring the 1.2 million new jobs and the desperately needed sweeping social and racial equity reforms that would be introduced with federal cannabis reform."
Asked Friday about the White House position, press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged the president supports taking a new approach to the drug, but would not offer specifics on the measures he'd like to see.
"Our current marijuana laws are not working (and) he agrees we need to rethink our approach," Psaki said.
"We look forward to working with Congress to achieve our shared goals, and will continue having discussions with them about this objective."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in supporting the bill, Democrats are simply acknowledging the realities of nearly half a century of failed federal drug policy.
"The fact is, it exists. It's being used. We've got to address how it is treated legally and not in a way that mistreats people on the lower income scale," Pelosi said during her weekly news conference.
"It's a fact of life that needed appropriate public policy to address it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2022.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press